XKCD creator Randall Munroe has a bee in his bonnet about numbers and context. A couple of years ago, he blogged about the Dictionary of Numbers: a Chrome plugin which inserts comparative context for any values it detects in your browser. For example, if the value “1,200 people” appears on a webpage you're reading, the plugin will helpfully append this with “[≈ population of Niue, nation]” or something similar.
In a more recent FiveThirtyEight interview, he came out with this gem:
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.
His broader point, which you've probably surmised already, is that numbers aren't meaningful out of context. If you're presented with a digit sporting a bunch of trailing zeroes, your brain will fall into the trap of scope neglect and just parse it as “a really big number”. In order for these values to be informative, they need to connect with something you can comprehend. Whenever your brain goes “that's a really big number”, you need to balance the account by asking the question “compared to what?”
This is a very worthwhile bee for one's bonnet to have, and tools like the Dictionary of Numbers are useful for making sense out of such things. But I also have other, bigger bees, and I wonder if there might be analogous ways to deal with them.
Here is a fake fact I am tired of hearing: “Bhutan uses Gross Domestic Happiness to measure its wealth”. First of all, no it doesn't. If you can tell me what Bhutan's Gross National Happiness was for 2013 I will give you a million pounds, or a commensurate amount of happiness.
Leaving aside the matter of it not being true, and of “happiness” being a nebulous concept we can't coherently measure, what annoys me is how people lap up this idea without stopping to think “well, what's Bhutan actually like?” A bit of research would reveal that it has a pretty sketchy human rights record, a 59% literacy rate, and ranks between Indonesia and Guatemala on the Multidimensional Poverty Index. With context like that, it's hard to think "hey, that Bhutan place has got the right idea".
There is no Chrome plugin that would detect the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness fact and flag it up as spurious bullshit. For that matter, there's no Chrome plugin for immediately finding context on countries of the world1 , but this is at least feasible. I'm looking for a non-trivial Chrome extension project, and I might very well try putting it together myself.
This makes me wonder what other subjects people might want immediate context on, which could be provided in a similar way. They Work For You holds public voting records for all UK MPs, but there are 650 of them, and checking them out one by one whenever they appear in a news article is beyond most people's effort budget. A browser extension that let you view a digest of their affiliations and voting record at a glance would aid in following political news. Or consider the converse, which could do the same for electoral wards.
We'd certainly be more well-informed if we stopped every two minutes to look up important details on Wikipedia, but my point is that we don't have to. More and more of what we read comes to us through a web browser, a dynamic tool that's capable of doing work on our behalf. Why don't we let it?
That I can find with five minutes of Googling, though the CIA World Factbook is available as an Android app ↩