On Translating Really Big Numbers and Giving Them a Human Context

I am pretty big into data visualization right now: how can communicators help people understand data with charts or pictures. It’s all the rage. But communicators still need to think about how to contextualize really big numbers with words that evoke images. In disaster reporting you often hear things like, “The wildfires burned an area larger than the state of Rhode Island!” or “The oil spill could fill 1000 olympic swimming pools.” (I’m not suggesting that either of these are very good examples, they are basically stand-ins for saying “really big” because the writer or speaker is completely convinced of the innumeracy of his audience. Today I encountered an article about a topic that interests me, food waste. I didn’t get too far into it before my mind (and fingers) were off on a tangent. Here is the second sentence: To give you an idea of how much 3,000 tons is, that’s the weight of the new warship USS Little Rock, set to be commissioned later this year. Do you know how big a warship is? I don’t. Do you want to click through just to find out? I don’t. ¬†Using an analogy to help the reader understand a quantifiable measure only really helps when the analogous thing is something your audience knows about. Otherwise it just means, “really big”. So here are a few better ways to quantify 3,000 tons: 1 ton is 2,000 pounds, so 3,000 tons is 6 Million pounds. We all know how much we weigh, and have a sense of a pound of food, we often buy food by weight. If it were all...