News in Numbers and Nurturing Numeracy

My attention span is a little short right now. There’s always the news, of course, but the lack of daylight around the end of the year gives me a weird combination of restlessness and lethargy. That’s why one of my favorite columns in my blog feed right now is Significant Digits from FiveThirtyEight. Every weekday, Walter Hickey rounds up a few numbers from the news. FiveThirtyEight is well-known for its data-driven reporting about sports, politics, health, and pop culture, and I highly recommend their multi-article in-depth reports. (The series on gun deaths was particularly compelling, and I’m looking forward to reading and listening to their work on gerrymandering.)

Credit: Jorge Franganillo, via Flickr.

Significant Digits boils everything down to bite-sized nuggets of numbers, often with a splash of humor. I can almost ignore the occasional sponsored content and the fact that the numbers are listed in increasing order, but he treats percentages as 100 times their value. (That is, 85% is filed under 85, not 0.85. Am I pedantic? Very well then I am pedantic.)

Numbers by themselves can do as much to obscure as to clarify. A million is a lot. But is raising or lowering the national debt by a million dollars a lot? Does a disease with a million sufferers affect a lot of people? I appreciate the fact that Significant Digits tries to contextualize the numbers and links to longer news stories so people who want to can get a more complete picture.

I think of myself as a fairly numerate news consumer. When I read numbers in the news, I try to roll them around in my head a little to put them into context. A million dollars added to the US national debt is $0.30 per person or on the order of magnitude of 0.00001% of the current national debt. I like to play with Fermi problems, as I’ve written about here before. So it was especially hard on my ego when I visited math teacher Fawn Nguyen’s website Between 2 Numbers and found out I was out of my depth trying to answer a lot of the questions. How many grains of sand does it take to cover LA to the depth of a foot? I have no idea. I guess I have some work to do to catch up to her students!

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