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  • Dan Connors

How to make numbers come alive

Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers

As a math nerd and accountant, I can attest to the power and allure of numbers. Manipulating numbers is a fun pursuit for me, because the rules are plain and I can take pleasure from finding the patterns and totals in any list of numbers. Life isn't like that- non-numerical information is subjective and subject to all sorts of cognitive biases, to the point that you're never quite sure if you've accounted for everything.

The problem with numbers geeks is that when we try to interpret those numbers for other people. As a tax accountant, I'm always trying to explain the components of each tax return and how the bottom line came about. Our tax code is so complicated that most people don't get it, and very few understand where their tax money goes or what it pays for. When it comes to truly large numbers, in the billions, our brains shut down completely because we just can't place them in the real world, and that's when math becomes almost useless. How big is the national debt and what does it mean? Nobody really understands.

Making Numbers Count is a great little book that tries to bring the art of explaining big numbers into focus. It seems like nobody understands economics or large scale events- not politicians, not "influencers", and not the general public. Only a small number of specialists come close to understanding the important numbers, and they are notoriously bad at communicating. This book tries to fill that gap.

Chip Heath has written some great books about how we think with his brother Dan Heath- The Power of Moments, Decisive, Switch, and Made to Stick, all of which I've read and recommended. He's a business school professor at Stanford and has teamed up with science writer Karla Starr for this book.

Human brains are limited in how much data they can take in and make sense of. Our working memories can only hold about seven numbers at once (hence the phone numbers and zip codes), and after that they forget. No matter how many math classes people take, most of us don't really understand fractions. ( for instance people thought they were being cheated when A&W introduced a 1/3 pound burger to compete with McDonald's quarter pounder.) And once you get past a few digits of a big number people's eyes glaze over and they check out mentally.

The book has 3 basic principles that it proposes:

1- Simpler is better. Round numbers up or down with enthusiasm.

2- Concrete is better. Use whole numbers to describe whole objects. Avoid decimals, fractions or percentages.

3- Defer to expertise on occasion to override 1 and 2. (For instance, when talking to a group of scientists use numbers that they are familiar with.)

I especially agree with number 2. Numbers can be intimidating, and relating them to real things in the real world makes them more user-friendly. Instead of saying the the national debt is $27 Trillion dollars (a number that is too big to have meaning to the average person), say that the national debt is $82,000 for each man, woman, and child to make it more real.

The book encourages you to paint a picture with numbers- instead of a large number in pounds or square miles, compare an item to the size of a grape, deck of cards, familiar landmark like the Empire State Building, the state of Illinois or the country of Switzerland so people can compare and visualize.

For the truly large scale numbers, you can shrink the scale and make it more relatable. Shrink our solar system down to the size of a football field and you see that the scale of the distances for the sun and planets. Shrink the entirety of earth's history into one calendar year, and you can appreciate how only recently humanity came into the picture (New Year's Eve). Shrink the population of the earth to a village of 100 people and you see what the reality is for most of us. Big numbers are intimidating, but familiar things give us the scale we need. The same applies for tiny numbers- you can increase the scale of molecules and bacteria and put them in a recognizable place to make more sense.

Statistics can be very dry and boring. But a good communicator can turn those statistics into something both personal and emotional. Consider- which is more powerful?

1- There is a 20% chance of experiencing a mental illness in a given year, and a 50% chance of being diagnosed with a mental illness in your lifetime.

2- For every 5 people in this room, 1 of you will be diagnosed with a mental illness this year. At some point either you or the person next to you will be diagnosed with a mental illness.

1- Jeff Bezos made $75 Billion in 2020

2- Imagine if you had an extra $25,000 this year. How many weeks would you have to work to make that much? How dramatically would your life change? How many people's lives could you save by paying for the food, rent, or medical bills? $25,000 is about what Bezos made in the time it took you to read this.

This is the challenge for anybody who talks about either politics or economics. How to put numbers into perspective and make better decisions based on data. Our feeble little brains latch onto faulty assumptions and cling to them even when the numbers contradict them. Explaining the impact of things like climate change, fiscal spending policy, or health statistics can have life or death consequences. Getting people to actually understand climate data, death rates, or budget numbers is the big challenge.

This book made me think twice about how I read or write about statistics. Making them personal, relatable, and user-friendly is the whole ballgame. If you can't get a point across, a number just becomes another bit of static in an already confusing world. I close with some of my favorite number paintings from the book- these changed how I see some things and give me a template for how to convert data into stories.

1- If everyone in the world ate as much meat as Americans, we would need 138% more inhabitable land to raise the livestock.

2- If everyone in the world ate as much meat as Americans, all inhabitable land on Earth would have to be used to raise livestock- and we'd still need more- an additional landmass as big as Africa and Australia combined.

1- The odds of winning Powerball are 292.201,338 to 1

2- Imagine having to guess a random date between January 1 of year 001 and September 18th of the year 2667. If you match exactly, you win the lottery prize. But just as you are about to get the prize they reveal one more hurdle- you have to pick from 300 identical envelopes on a wall that has your check. Only that one will have your prize.

1- In a recent study of racism in job applications, 34% of White and 14% of Black applications without criminal records received calls for interviews. For those with criminal records, the numbers were 17% and 5%.

2- White job applicants who had served jail time for a felony were more likely to receive an interview request than were Black applicants with clean records.

1- McDonalds alone outspends the 5 A Day campaign for health eating by 350 to 1.

2- If a child sees a McDonald's commercial every day, it would take them almost a year to see just one commercial about 5 A Day.

1- The US government spent $68 billion on food and nutrition assistance in 2018

2- Imagine that when you start work on January 1, every dime you made goes toward paying your taxes and then you get to keep the money when you're done.

- The first two weeks of January goes to Social Security

- Another two weeks of January goes to Medicare and Medicaid

- The first five days of February pay down interest on the national debt

- Ten more days to pay for national defense

- The next ten days go towards everything else you think of as government- meat inspectors, air traffic controllers, CDC biologists, judges, congress, FBI agents, diplomats etc.

- You spend 6 hours working to pay for food stamps, 12 minutes to pay for the national park system, and 2 hours for NASA.

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