Thursday, October 18, 2012

More Meaningless Numbers

What on earth makes journalists write things like this?

Australians, as it turns out, watch lots of telly. According to the survey data, in 2008, the year that the researchers chose as their benchmark, Australian adults viewed a collective 9.8 billion hours of television.

A collective 9.8 billion hours! OK, quick, how much television does the average Australian watch in a day? I have no idea, but if you paid them $10 per hour of TV watching, it would form a stack of dollar bills 6000 miles high. That's lots of telly! Or maybe not. Again, I have no idea. (Do Australians say "telly," by the way? I thought that was more a British thing.)

I think the problem here (and here and here) is an attempt to make numbers look big by multiplying them by other big numbers, such as the population of a country or the days in a year. But what actually defines a number as big is comparison to similar numbers. A large number without other numbers for comparison looks big, but doesn't give much information about whether it actually is or not.

This may be the intended effect if you're a politician trying to avoid scrutiny of your ideas. Classic recent example: cite cost of Obamacare by giving total cost over a ten-year period (almost a trillion dollars!) without comparing it to, say, total health-care costs over the same period (30 trillion dollars!).

But journalists should have higher aspirations than that.

Note: If you're wondering, it comes out to about an hour and fifteen minutes per day. Not real couch potato territory, but that's just the average. Apparently, though, the reporter decided the story needed a big number to make a point (about an Australian  study that finds sitting is bad for you), so she threw in an impressive-sounding but meaningless number.

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