recentpopularlog in

robertogreco : magnitude   1

Randall Munroe Of xkcd Answers Our (Not So Absurd) Questions | FiveThirtyEight
"WH: In “What If?” you often rely on estimation techniques to develop reasonable answers to pretty complex questions. For example, in the Supernova neutrino radiation question, you reconciled two things that happen at extremely different orders of magnitude. Of the estimation techniques you use, which do you think is the most applicable for people to apply to their daily life? What’s a technical takeaway you’d like to see people use more?

RM: 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.

One thing that’s been really helpful for me is to memorize random quantities to serve as reference points. I remember that Wyoming is the smallest state and has a bit over half a million people, and that New York’s metro area has about 20 million. Boston’s has 5 million, and Tokyo’s has 35 million. “One in 100 Americans” is 3 million people, and “1 in 100 people” is 70 million. Once I have those reference points, when I hear “10 million people have lost power in the storm,” I at least have something to compare it to.

But I’m also wary of people saying “everyone should know” some skill from their area of expertise, because people have their own stuff to deal with. It’s easy for me to imagine an abstract person and then say, “Wouldn’t it be better if that person knew how to program?” And maybe it would. But real people are complicated and busy, and don’t need me thinking of them as featureless objects and assigning them homework. Not everyone needs to know calculus, Python or how opinion polling works. Maybe more of them should, but it feels a little condescending to assume I know who those people are. I just do my best to make the stuff I’m talking about interesting; the rest is up to them."

[via: https://twitter.com/doingitwrong/status/508015133147561984 ]
randallmunroe  via:timmaly  xkcd  scale  numbers  comparison  data  magnitude  communication  people  humans  coding 
september 2014 by robertogreco

Copy this bookmark:





to read