Tuesday AM January 6th, 2009

Numbers bombard us daily in news stories. Whether it's about layoffs or your chances for cancer, knowing where the data comes from can help you interpret a story. Ed Mayberry reports.
image of The Numbers Game book cover

The author of The Numbers Game: The Common Sense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News says figures demand attention and cause alarm.  Michael Blastland says the news comes at you in numbers.

"Just about any subject you care to name, you know, whether it's the economy in which we're hearing the $700 billion bailout — $800 billion, I was reading recently — possibly coming along.  Whether it's the environment and what's happening to the climate, whether it's the crime rate — it's just all in numbers."

It's hard to get your head around $700 billion.

"But you can divide these numbers up so that we can see how it would feel if you get numbers which are more familiar to us.  You know, (if) they're about the size of our paycheck or something like that then we can get a feel for the magnitude of them.  And then we can make a decision about whether this is the right thing to do, or whether it's affordable or not."

Blastland recommends looking past phrases like "may reach" or "could be as high as," and to think more about whether the information is actually plausible.  So, take a story that says you increase your chances of getting bowel cancer by 20 per cent if you eat an extra ounce of bacon each day.

"And that sounds pretty scary, you know.  You think 'that's it for me and bacon, you know, we're finished!  End of a beautiful relationship, maybe.'  Ordinarily, about five men in a hundred will get colorectal cancer.  Forget the bacon for a moment, this is what happens ordinarily.  If they all — all hundred of those men eat this extra bacon every day — every day of their remaining lives — then the number goes up from five in a hundred to six in a hundred.  That's your 20 per cent increase — from five to six, one extra case in every hundred people."   

Blastland is the creator of the BBC Radio 4 program More or Less.
 

 Ed Mayberry, KUHF Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...