The writer narrates a story of his colleague who was asked to figure how many halogen torchieres had been sold. This is a basic Fermi problem that no-one knew the answer to. Not market researchers, not the authorities or even the library.
The writer’s friend applies some Fermi magic and taking all pieces of information into consideration, builds an estimate.
The authorities ( a federal agency ) asked the publisher of this colleague a number for a press report. The estimated number of 35 – 40 million was changed to something more conservative and lo and behold – dozens of newspaper articles & TV programs cite this agency’s number without verifying its original source.
This number had taken a life of its own through institutional adoption and media repetition!
Turning numbers into knowledge has many such stories that warn problem solvers of potential mistakes in their analysis.
The lesson here? Subject critical data to peer review and scrutiny and be cautious about your guesstimates!
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