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The School Was Being Too Accurate

August 24, 2016

My kids’ Junior High School was doing a bad job of teaching. It wasn’t in Algebra or English or even in History. They were breaking one of the basic rules of science and statistics. 

Like many schools, my kids’ school has an electronic reader board out in front of t he school. In addition to announcing picture day, and thanking Mrs. Gentry for teaching Home Ec for 25 years, it shows the time and the temperature.

There’s just one problem. The degrees of precision are off. It wasn’t 75.5 degrees outside when I took this picture. How hot was it? Probably about 75, but I’m willing to bet a Higgs-Boson particle that it wasn’t exactly seventy five and one half degrees. 

Okay, so who cares, right? It’s a rounding error, or a degree of percision, or a location of the temperature probe issue. But, is it really wrong? Is it important?

Do you know at what temperature water boils? 

Most people would say 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celcius. And they would be right. Now, if I asked 

At what temperature does water boil at my house?

Would you want to change your answer? 

Water boils at about about 203 degrees at my house. Why? Because, the elevation of my house is at about 4700 feet above sea level. When I go camping in the mountains the boiling point drops even further. (It’s about a 1 degree drop for every 500 feet in elevation.) We regularly camp at 7000 feet where the boiling temperature drops below 200 degrees. It’s all very sciency and has to do with pressure, temperature and elevation. However, it can be an important number when you are thinking about boiling the water from a mountain stream to purify it. In fact, it’s one of those, “Do this wrong and you might die. . .or at least get very sick” issues. If you are below 5500 feet, you need to boil your water for 5-10 minutes. The higher you are, the longer to boil it. If you are above 5500 feet, don’t bother. The water will never get hot enough to kill all the nasties living in it. 

The point is that being too accurate, or attempting to be too precise can be an issue. 

I maintain large network systems. My agents take millions of calls per day. When looking at statistics on my sites, I have to be imprecise. If I want to record 10% of the calls, for example, I cannot put a number on that. If my agents take 1,000,000 calls, then 10% is 100,000. But, if I put 100,000 in as my target number of records, I’m never going to be exactly accurate except for that one in a million day when they take exactly 1,000,000 calls. Of course, after the fact, I can calculate how many I recorded, but even then, my percentage is going to be just a little bit off, unless they took a number of calls evenly divisible by 10. ( I can’t record a portion of a call.)

That’s why the reader board at my kids’ school bothers me. That temperature reading is wrong. I don’t know the right number, but I know it’s not what they are stating. And by implying to the kids that they can measure outdoor temperature that accurately, they do a disservice. I would not make a huge change. After all, I like seeing the temperature when I drive by. I believe it’s about 75 and that’s good enough for me. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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