Understanding the deficit, Ukraine's size, COVID and more : The Indicator from Planet Money Indicators are all around us — but do we really understand these numbers' size and what they mean? Today, a data teacher gives us some tips on how to put these figures into perspective.

How to understand a trillion

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This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.


And I'm Darian Woods. And I don't know about you, Stacey, but it feels like every day, we're just, like, overflowing with numbers.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, I do also feel this way. Yes.

WOODS: I mean, whether it's the price of gasoline as we're driving down the street or these big macro indicators that you might read in the newspaper, like global GDP - I don't know.

VANEK SMITH: Jobs numbers, inflation.

WOODS: I know - so many numbers.

VANEK SMITH: Yield on the 10-year T note - you know, they're everywhere, these numbers. And, of course, the problem is, like, it can be hard to keep them straight or really even just, like, appreciate what they mean. You know, as humans, we're not necessarily born knowing statistics. And it becomes, like, this second language to understand what these numbers mean or to understand the context of them.

WOODS: Karla Starr is a data teacher who knows this very well. So Karla and her co-author, Chip Heath, wrote a book about communicating numbers better. It's called "Making Numbers Count."

VANEK SMITH: So today on the show, Darian, you play a little game with Karla - give my numbers a makeover.

WOODS: That's right.

VANEK SMITH: Karla tells us how to make our indicators just, you know, a little bit more attractive and memorable. So we're all learning something today.

WOODS: A bit of a zhuzh up.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

WOODS: Karla Starr, you are a writer on data, and you're the co-author of the book "Making Numbers Count." And I was kind of surprised. For a book on numbers, your first tip here is just to not even use numbers.

KARLA STARR: Exactly. I call it the "Fight Club" rule of numbers - don't talk about numbers. As per the book, I think one of the things that came across quite clearly in the research is if you're talking about numbers, it's actually pretty important to avoid using numbers whenever possible.

WOODS: A lot of us, we need to use numbers all the time, and we need to communicate numbers. And so what are kind of common mistakes you see?

STARR: One of the most common mistakes I see is that people very quickly - they forget what they're experts on, and they forget that, you know, what they use on a daily basis might be completely foreign to somebody else. And another one is - I see this all the time in articles about the economy or COVID - is people trying to overwhelm you with numbers...

WOODS: Right.

STARR: ...And people kind of thinking that the more numbers they throw at you, the better their case will be. And really, it's just kind of losing the meeting and the clarity that it could have.

WOODS: OK. I'm going to give you some badly communicated statistics - just some examples that are a little bit unwieldy. And I'd like your help kind of whittling that down into a more user-friendly package. So are you game?

STARR: Absolutely. It sounds great.

WOODS: All right, Karla, as of our interview, the U.S. debt is about $29 trillion. The government's been borrowing a lot during COVID. It's going to be borrowing more. How do I put this into perspective?

STARR: So for this one, I like this rule we have called the power of one. And if we just - instead of looking at these huge numbers in trillions and billions, if we kind of break them down into one unit that would make sense for somebody - if you could just think about it in terms of maybe a family or a citizen or a town. So for this one, we could look at the U.S. national debt, what that is in terms of dollars per citizen.

WOODS: OK. So we could do the sums now, then. So I guess there's, you know, 330 million Americans, 29 trillion - OK, so that gets $88,000 per American.

STARR: Right. Sometimes, in order to get across the magnitude of a problem, you don't need to throw all these zeros at it. You know, you don't need to say, oh, it's in terms of trillions, because our brains simply were not developed to deal with trillions. We're designed to deal with, you know, one, two, three, many.

WOODS: All right. My next number is the number of unemployed Americans, which is 6,319,000 people. So how would you present that number better?

STARR: Well, first of all, I think - I have to admit I forgot the entire number that you just said because (laughter) there's so many little details.

WOODS: Oh, yeah, I guess that's the point, right?

STARR: Exactly. That's the point. So, you know, we have a term in the book. We call this user-friendly numbers. So I think a lot of times, when people - they want to get across, you know, how clear their data is, you know, that they've done the research, they end up using numbers that, you know, we can't remember or we can't really make sense of. And, you know, would you rather have people think of you as being extremely precise, or would you rather have people actually remember the number that you're talking about?

WOODS: Totally. That makes a lot of sense. And I'll say it again, that number I said earlier. The number of unemployed people is 6,319,000. How can I say that better?

STARR: Right. So it's about 6 1/2 million.

WOODS: About 6 1/2 million.

STARR: Yeah.

WOODS: So as easy as that, I guess. So just rounding up, not going through the full number, not using the full number of decimal places - that kind of thing.


WOODS: All right. So next question - Ukraine is in the news a lot. The size of Ukraine is 233,000 square miles. How can I better communicate that number?

STARR: There's a team at Microsoft that wanted to help people who were looking up information understand just how big these things were. So they found that users retained numbers and facts a lot better when they added what were called perspective sentences. So they would put the size in terms of something that readers are very familiar with.

So in this example, we can say that Ukraine is about twice the size of Nevada, right? So we're kind of localizing it. We're, you know, drawing on a point of comparison to something that people are familiar with.

One way I like to think of these perspective sentences is with what I like to call the MacGyver principle. So if you're ever at a loss for, you know, how can I put this number in terms that everybody would understand? Do what MacGyver did. MacGyver would just look around at whatever was around him at the time, and then he would just make use of those tools.

WOODS: Yeah, so a coat - he'd use a coat hanger and some string to escape out of a building or something like that.


WOODS: And so you're saying, with numbers, just look around you and see - you know, OK, I see a bookshelf, and that could kind of give a perspective on the height of something, perhaps.

STARR: Right - a bookshelf or, you know, you think geographically, you know, in terms of what would make sense to the people in your audience or the people around you.

WOODS: Excellent. OK. Next number - in 2016, the 148 million allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts accounted for 0.004% of the federal budget expenditures, which is 3.9 trillion. So that's a lot of numbers, but I guess the main point we're thinking about is the size of the National Endowment for the Arts.

STARR: Right. If you looked at just the $148 million allocated to the NEA, you would say, that's so much money, you know? How could it not make a dent in the federal budget? So our number translation for this one was, trying to balance the budget by eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts would be like editing a 90,000-word novel by eliminating four words.

WOODS: OK. So four words out of a novel is not a huge amount.

STARR: (Laughter) It's pretty useless. Right.

WOODS: All right. So my next number is - with the coronavirus pandemic, we have just been inundated with some very tragic numbers, but also some just hard-to-process numbers. In the U.S., as of this interview, there are a total of over 880,000 COVID deaths. And, I mean, a lot of us might be feeling a little bit numb to these very large numbers. Have you seen some good examples of better communicating these numbers?

STARR: I think the New York Times did a really good job when we hit a milestone with COVID deaths. And they ran not just the names and the ages of people who had died, but they had a sentence about their biography, you know? So it was, you know, this person, 51, loved salsa dancing. This person died, 75. You know, they left behind nine grandkids.

And it was just enough to kind of, like, give you a sense of, like, oh, we lost a person. You know, we lost a human being. And I think when we start looking at numbers that are so large, there's this term called psychophysical numbing. You know, one death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.

WOODS: Yeah.

STARR: So it's - our brains just are not built to comprehend that much tragedy or that much emotion, so we just kind of start to depersonalize everything. And I think that's exactly what's been happening with the COVID pandemic is, all of a sudden, it's - you know, this number has just kind of become meaningless, which is why I think breaking them down allows us to kind of really understand the depths of that emotion and the depth of what we've lost.

WOODS: I remember that New York Times piece. It was very striking, and it really put a human touch to every one of those fatalities.

STARR: Absolutely. And I think that's one of the things that numbers can't do. You know, numbers can't put a human touch to a number. Numbers, at the end of the day, are just tools, but we can use them in a better, more humane way.


WOODS: Karla Starr, thank you so much for joining THE INDICATOR.

STARR: Thank you so much for having me. It's been great.


WOODS: This show was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Corey Bridges. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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