Numbers talk, but can we hear them?

Working in politics, people throw a lot of numbers around. In fact, even if you follow politics pretty passively, you hear a lot of numbers: “$5.7 billion," “70 percent approval rating among Republicans," “won re-election by a four point margin," etc. The frustrating thing is that many of these numbers are thrown out with a great deal of confidence and very little context, leaving them open to misinterpretation. These numbers are presented with the intention of providing a concrete data point, when in practice they often confuse more than they enlighten – unless you do the work of rendering them meaningful to your audience.

Let’s take the first example: $5.7 billion. Seems simple enough, right? Alas, the average person – including the average college graduate with solid math skills – has no intuitive understanding of just how much a billion is. It’s a number so large that our primal brains are not evolved enough to comprehend it easily. That’s why I was very glad to see a tweet that analogized it in a way that made it accessible in its enormity. I’ll break it down even further, since I think many of us have trouble comprehending a million dollars. One hundred thousand seconds is 27.8 hours – a little over a day. But 5.7 billion seconds is over 180 YEARS. To many of us, $100,000 seems like quite a bit of money. Without explaining to the public how much $5.7 billion really is and how much could be done with it on other priorities, debates over issues like the border wall lack crucial context.

Another constant pet peeve of mine in political reporting is referencing approval numbers between Republicans or Democrats without first explaining the size of each of those groups. Most people assume each group makes up about half of the population since many of our elections are close. However, that is not remotely the case. Only about a quarter of Americans self-identify as Republicans, about a third as Democrats and a consistent plurality as independent, according to Gallup and Pew. So if 70 percent of Republicans are supportive of the president or a certain policy, that’s 70 percent of 25 percent, or only 17.5 percent of the public – a very low proportion overall.

Without putting numbers in context, they can confuse or even mislead. That’s why I always aspire to follow the lead of fellow East Lansing High School alum Nate Silver and put a priority on explaining numbers and data in a way that clarifies and informs, attempting to meet people where they are and make the math meaningful.

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