John Walker's Electronic House

BBC Snooze

by on Jan.06, 2010, under The Rest

BBC News is on fire today!

First of all, a story about pi being calculated to 2.7 trillion digits is accompanied by this caption:

“Pi is an irrational number, meaning its digits go on forever.”

Um, not quite. I think you’ll find an irrational number is one that starts crying because the wallpaper’s the wrong colour, or something.

And then follow the headline, “Archbishop urges population cap” and you get this story about a group of MPs arguing for, I guess, culling, that at no point mentions the Archbishop. It’s a bold headline choice, suggesting the Archbishop wants to shut down our borders to all those Johnny foreigners. He might want to ask them about that, since it’s now their 7th most read story.

Presumably they’re getting a bit confused with a story from last October when the former moron Archbishop George Carey declared his delightful views on immigration. He explained that the reason the BNP were gaining popularity was because of our “open door policy” to immigrants. Never mind that the BNP’s popularity has waned in the last few years (I mean, why let that trouble your ghastly views?), but to suggest that the BNP might be becoming more popular because there’s too many foreigners coming into the country… Um, maybe someone can see the irony here? “If the mainstream parties begin listening to the voters,” he said, “the BNP can be consigned again to the fringes.” That’s right George. If the mainstream parties adopt the policies of the BNP, then we’ll not need the BNP at all!

UPDATE: They’ve now updated the linking headline to read, “Carey in immigrant ‘values’ call”. But haven’t thought to update the article to mention Carey at all. Is everyone at the BBC drunk today?


22 Comments for this entry

  • Pentadact

    What’s wrong with the caption about pi? It seems right.

  • Fashigady

    I’m pretty sure that technically an irrational number is one which cannot be expressed as a fraction, which is essentially correct for pi, though it can also be referred to as a transcendental number :/

  • Nick

    I’m equally bothered by “knowing a given number to any amount of decimal places”, which uses ‘amount’ incorrectly. Apparently the author of the article (notably missing from BBC articles, I find!) doesn’t understand English /or/ maths!

  • John Walker

    So Tom, 1/3 is an irrational number?

  • Lewis

    Presumably it needed a “without recurring” tagged on the end. But then it’s several MILLION years since I did maths.

  • Dolphan

    The quote would be correct if it had ‘without recurring’ on the end. Pi is an irrational number, and a transcendental one (all transcendentals are irrational but not vice versa).

  • Dolphan

    Ha, snap.

  • NM

    Nick, I agree with you. The quality of the prose on the BBC News website is often deplorable. The example you point out might receive the retort “I didn’t want to repeat the word number”:
    “knowing a given number to any amount of decimal places”

    A professional journalist (rather than the nepotistic tokens employed at BBC News Online) would have rephrased the whole thing elegantly.

    I correct an apostrophe or similar on a BBC news article nearly once a week now. To give them credit, they do apply the correction.

  • NM

    Why do most BBC news articles have no bylines? They’re not the Economist; I don’t see why they think they should be allowed anonymity.

  • Jazmeister

    They should just call it an outrageous number.

  • radomaj

    John, I respect you, but this journalist has done nothing wrong (at least with the caption).
    Fashigady is mostly correct. 1/3 is not irrational, because you (and now I) have just expressed it as a fraction (of two integers). Whereas with PI there are no integers n and m where n/m equals PI.

    If you were just making fun of the notion that a number may be irrational (in “not reasonable” sense) then it’s weird to lump it with a legitimate concern regarding BBC reporting.

  • John Walker

    I’m a bit confused about all this. My criticism is not that he called pi an irrational number. Of course it is. It’s that he described an irrational number as “meaning its digits go on forever.”

    Apart from being the wording of an eight year old, this does not specifically or usefully describe an irrational number. It in fact describes any number that does not round to a whole number. So, it describes 1/3. The recurring digits of a third “go on forever”.

    I’m often wrong, but I’m fairly sure I’m not about this.

  • radomaj

    Alright, now I understand what you meant, sorry.

  • Rev. S. Campbell

    His statement is perfectly correct, you hapless great dolt. He says that Pi is an irrational number, which it is. He says that the digits of irrational numbers go on forever, which they do. The only person interpreting the statement in reverse is you.

    All irrational numbers have digits that last forever. All numbers with infinite digits are not, however, irrational numbers. But – and here’s why you’re a big oaf – he does NOT at any point claim that they are. He just says that Pi is one, and that that means its digits go on forever, which is a perfectly correct statement. Your inaccurate extrapolation of it is your own problem, not the BBC’s.

  • Rev. S. Campbell

    Or, for simpler clarification, here’s what the man said:

    “Pi is an irrational number, meaning its digits go on forever.”

    Here’s what John THINKS he said:

    “Pi is an irrational number, because its digits go on forever.”

  • Quercus

    I’m no big fan of Carey (or the BNP), but unless I am misunderstanding what he (and the cross-party group he has aligned to) is calling for, all they are saying is that for whatever reason, continued population growth in the UK is unsustainable and therefore there should be a *net* limit on immigration into the UK (I think he mentioned 40,000 per year).
    This is based upon the figures that the population is soon expected to reach 70 million and that the increase from 60 to 70 million was twice as fast as the increase from 50 million to 60 million.
    I also don’t think it is madness to say that while the main parties seem unwilling to discuss the immigration issue, some people may well end up sympathising with that particular aspect of BNP policy.

    Of course it is equally possible that Carey has only jumped on this current bandwagon because he is secretly pushing some other, less palatable agenda (such as seeking this to restrict the increase of non-christian cultures or something). It would be ironic if he was, because that is after all how the BNP works.

  • Oddtwang

    Rev. S. Campbell – leaving aside the unnecessary harshness of your comment, the caption as written may be technically correct if you interpret the word “meaning” to be a logical implication rather than a logical equality (in context, I happen to think the latter is what was intended), but the point is that it betrays a lack of understanding of irrationality since “can’t be expressed as a fraction” is more accurate, succinct and clear.

  • John Walker

    Quercus – “population cap” is very poor code for “get the immigrants out”. It would seem to me that we have enormous amounts of space in this country. This “70 million” number is waved around as if it’s some absolute limit the isle can hold before it sinks in the sea. It’s completely arbitrary. The people forming this group have offered no evidence to suggest 70m would cause any significant problems.

    While it is true that data indicates we will reach 70m in half the time it took to get from 50 to 60m (which was 50 years), the current population of the UK is estimated to be 61.4 million (in 2008 – last recorded data). 70m is by no means “soon”. If the trend continues, it will take approximately 25 years (twice as fast), so we should be at 70m by 2035. This doesn’t seem so sudden. Especially when you take into account that this increase is hardly off the charts. See this graph: (Also, the population of the UK increased in the first half of the last century from 40m to 50m in 30 years.)

    The UK is the 51st most populated country in the world, with a population growth that comes in 181st in the world. Approximately 600,000 immigrate to the UK each year, while just over 400,000 emigrate.

    There isn’t an “immigration issue” to discuss. All major parties frequently discuss the subject, but it’s a bit awkward for them since the so-called problems exist in the imaginations of xenophobes and racists. People sympathise with the BNP policy because they’re racists and xenophobes whore are upset when the major parties refuse to perpetuate racist lies.


  • GDC

    Isn’t the context of the Pi news story important when we’re considering the most appriopriate description of Pi to use?

    The purpose of this story isn’t to tell us the definition of Pi, but to tell us that Pi has been calculated to 2.7 trillion digits on a computer.

    Now, hearing this might prompt an inquisitive member of the general public to think “cor blimey, that sounds a lot. I wonder how close they are to calculating *all* the digits of Pi then?”.

    Now, this is where the description that “Pi is an irrational number, meaning its digits goes on forever” helpfully answers that question directly and simply, and is also true – Pi’s digits do go on forever.

    Telling that person that “Pi is an irrational number, meaning it can’t be expressed as a fraction”, while also correct, does not necessarily help him to answer his question, or even if it does, it means he has to process in his head the fact that as it can’t be expressed as a fraction, it must mean that its digits go on forever.

    So the journalist is surely keeping things simple and to the point, and for a website whose target audience is presumably “the general public”, that seems fair enough to me.

  • John Walker

    This is the best discussion on any blog ever.

  • Rev. S. Campbell

    “So the journalist is surely keeping things simple and to the point, and for a website whose target audience is presumably “the general public”, that seems fair enough to me.”

    Indeed. Plus, as we’ve seen, his statement was perfectly correct in and of itself too. So in conclusion, the BBC is ace and John is a big idiot who is worse than Hitler.

  • John Walker

    Well, that part’s true.