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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