Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How to write about numbers

One thing that bothers me is large numbers presented without context. We’re always seeing things like, “This canal project will require 1.15 million tons of concrete.” It’s presented as if it should mean something to us, as if numbers are inherently informative. So we feel like if we don’t understand it, it’s our fault.

But I have only a vague idea of what one ton of concrete looks like. I have no idea what to think of a million tons. Is that a lot? It’s clearly supposed to sound like a lot, because it has the word “million” in it. But on the other hand, “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” made $7 million at the box office, and it was one of the biggest flops in movie history.

It can be more useful to look for context. Is concrete a surprisingly large share of the project’s budget? Is the project going to consume more concrete than the rest of the state combined? Will this project use up a large share of the world’s concrete? Or is this just easy, space-filling trivia? A good rule of thumb might be, “If I added a zero to this number, would the sentence containing it mean something different to me?” If the answer is “no,” maybe the number has no business being in the sentence in the first place.
--Randall Munroe, FiveThirtyEight, on context as king