We now have the technology available to generate almost any kind of information about almost anything. But in my mind, much of this information is simply misinformation, because it works to create a false sense of accuracy—or false precision—about the true state of things.
Take this case in point: A recent convert to digital photography, I've quickly discovered the downside to the technology: Battery life. I found out just how quickly one can go through batteries while photographing monkeys and elephants during a recent trip to India. A dancing bear in the road was one of the oddest sights I tried to capture on film, but more on that later.
Supposedly, the Sony engineers who designed my camera are able to predict with confidence just exactly how much battery power I have left: Right down to the minute. At least that's what the meter told me. That's actually pretty amazing, given that Kodak throws away zillions of batteries from its single-use camera every year. Engineers may have figured out how to recycle virtually every other part in the camera, but because they cannot say with confidence how many flashes they can get out of a used battery, they can't reuse it.
Perhaps Sony is using some kind of monitoring system to predict the battery's state-of-charge: But I'm not buying their story that they can measure it with minute accuracy. In fact, I think I can better predict just exactly when my camera battery will run out of juice: That Kodak moment, in this case at exactly the moment we came upon the dancing bear crossing the road.
Or consider this example of false precision, false accuracy's partner in crime. My husband, who teaches a graduate-level engineering class at a Boston-area university, was grading tests recently, when he came across two papers with identical, wrong solutions—all the way out to three significant digits. It appeared to be a clear case of cheating, which was perplexing as the students involved were no dummies.
Upon closer examination and by punching in a few numbers on his calculator, he realized what must have happened: The students meticulously had carried out the math involved to too many significant digits on their calculators. The more calculations, the more the error propagated. And voila! What looked like a clear case of cheating was nothing of the sort. Just, well, misinformation.