Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The rule of zero

with 2 comments

Randall Munroe

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…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, in an interview with Five Thirty Eight

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2016 at 7:30 am

2 Responses

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  1. I totally agree! This is a rule that journalists should follow, in my opinion. For example, what does it mean to say that a wall across the southern border of the U.S. would cost $25 billion? That’s the estimate that John Oliver gives. ( What would be really helpful is to see how that compares to something else on which we could spend that same amount of money. Here’s the comparison I like best: $1.2 billion would pay “All the adoption fees for all the animals in shelters in the US.” (Source: A billion dollars is a lot of money, but it’s hard to grasp exactly HOW much that is!

    Andrea Kenner

    March 26, 2016 at 8:37 am

  2. I agree! Douglas R. Hofstadter, one of my favorite writers, wrote an essay more than thirty years ago on the subject, “On Number Numbness,” which is still worth reading. You can see a bit of it here.


    April 24, 2016 at 8:59 pm

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