Tuesday, December 1, 2015

When Big Numbers are Used to Confuse

Science writers try to use human scale analogies to help people understand cosmic scales of space and time. Why do other people try to invoke big numbers when dealing with the mundane.

When Big Numbers are Used to Confuse


I’ve read that people are not well-equipped to intuitively grasp numbers in the billions. That’s why metaphors can be so helpful when dealing with the vast stretches of geologic time. One of my favorites is Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar, into which the whole lifetime of the universe is compressed into a year. All of human history would take place in the last few seconds before midnight on December 31.

It makes sense to me to use human-scale analogies when attempting to explain and illuminate the vastness of time or other large numbers in nature. But what could be the point of taking mundane facts and blowing them up artificially so that large numbers can be invoked?

Last weekend, for example, an economist writing this op-ed for the Inquirer wrote that every penny increase in the price of gasoline costs American consumers $1.25 billion dollars a year. That sounds alarming, but is it? If we estimate there are 300 million people and at the very least 200 million are old enough to qualify as consumers, then the cost to each of them is about $6.25 a year, which doesn’t sound so terrible.

It’s not hard to make a scary-sounding number out of the amount we collectively spend on Starbucks Coffee or cat food. That doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently impressive about it.

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About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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