Can the New York Times Magazine Please Hire a Mathematically Literate Editor?

The New York Times Magazine provides almost inexhaustible fodder for this blog.  Recently I have written about prostates, cell phones, and ketogenic diets, based on articles in the Magazine.  Normally the articles are well researched and provocative.  But sometimes things seem to go a bit haywire in the editing process, and the Magazine lets through stuff that it really should catch (see, for instance, my post on nonsensical graphics).  This week in the midst of a fascinating (and scary) article on the state of US bio-defense, there came the following sentence:

In hundreds of experiments, scientist weaponized the bacteria to extraordinary potency and the proceeded to mix the slurry with another agent… which multiplied the effect logarithmically.

I suppose I should be happy that the Magazine did not go with the lazy “exponentially”, but really:  what can it mean to multiply an effect “logarithmically”?  Take x and multiple by log x?  Base 10?  e?  This does not seem the case based on the following sentences, where the result “shatter[s] the human immune system”.  It seems more likely that the author was searching for something to add a mathematical veneer and grabbed the only function remembered from a long-ago high school math class.

“… which greatly increased the effect” might not sound so sophisticated, but I think would have been a better choice here.

P.S.  I now recall that I have seen this strange use of logarithmically before.  Perhaps I can have a category where I track this usage.


One thought on “Can the New York Times Magazine Please Hire a Mathematically Literate Editor?”

  1. Given the state of mathematics education in the US, I’m half tempted to accuse you of advocating further off-shoring of jobs. Your point, though, is well taken. Maybe journalism schools should insert something in their curricula about checking pseudo-mathematical and pseudo-scientific language. The Times must have a science editor, so it’s probably just a workflow management issue.

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