To Make Sense, Put Numbers Into Context It's been a big year for numbers in 2008. Take the $700 billion bailout for example. Economist Andrew Dilnot and journalist Michael Blastland try to make sense of numbers in their new book, The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life. They say the secret is to put numbers into context.

To Make Sense, Put Numbers Into Context

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It has been a big year for big numbers. For the next few minutes, we're going to try to make sense of those numbers. To begin, a number we can all manage - one. Here's the sound of one guy talking.

(Soundbite of man talking)

Unidentified Male #1: So, in every day you can count on it.

MONTAGNE: Now, a hundred people.

(Soundbite of 100 people talking)

MONTAGNE: And with a little help from technology, we can approximate a million.

(Soundbite of one million people talking)

MONTAGNE: Sounds a little like rushing water, which is just how big numbers can sound on the news.

(Soundbite of news montage)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: We'll invest 15 billion dollars a year over the next decade.

Unidentified Male #2: Twenty-five billion dollars.

Unidentified Female: Most of the $350 billion has...

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The government will spend up to $700 billion to....

Unidentified Male #3: Tens of millions of dollars.

Unidentified Male #4: Close to one trillion dollars.

MONTAGNE: To help take some of the blur out of those bazillions, we invited economist Andrew Dilnot and journalist Michael Blastland into our London studios. They hosted a BBC radio show all about numbers called "More or Less." Welcome to the program.

Mr. ANDREW DILNOT (Economist; Co-Author, "The Numbers Game"): Hi.

Mr. MICHAEL BLASTLAND (Journalist; Co-Author, "The Numbers Game "): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, you know, may I just start actually with you, Andrew Dilnot, the economist here. We've just heard some numbers - 700 billion for America's financial bailout. Do you find that number shocking?

Mr. DILNOT: Not really, without setting it in context, and setting numbers in context is what Michael and I really feel passionate about, it's hard to know whether it's big or little. Is $700 billion a lot of money? Well, the total national income of the United Statesis nearly $15 trillion, or 15,000 billion. So, $700 billion is about five percent of national income for the U.S.

The kind of number for the car bailout, I think about $15 billion, well, Michael or I - and I suspect you wouldn't mind a small slice of that, but $15 billion is just one dollar a week for every person in the U.S. for one year. So maybe it isn't such a big number. And that's one of the things we really want people to do, to cut numbers down to size, make them personal, and that way you can work whether they're big, small, or just kind of average.

MONTAGNE: Michael Blastland, get in here if you would, and give us some other examples of numbers that it's a bit hard to get our heads around, but it can be done, that we've been hearing this year.

Mr. BLASTLAND: Well, one useful trick is to imagine those numbers instead as seconds. And a million seconds is about eleven-and-a-half days. A billion seconds, I wouldn't ask you to work it out, a billion seconds is nearly 32 years. Just to remind ourselves that one is a thousand times greater than the other. And that actually, yeah, they've both got a lot of zeros on the end, but those extra three zeros make quite a bit of difference in many cases.

MONTAGNE: Do you all think that large numbers are even harder to understand because we don't really pull out a lot of cash at any given moment. We're generally using credit cards, or for that matter, passing around numbers on a computer screen.

Mr. DILNOT: I suspect it may well be true that our own personal engagement with numbers matters - there's a lovely story told by a neuroscientist in the U.K. about how good people were at doing arithmetic depending on where they lived. And it turned out that people from Italy who'd started to suffer from dementia were still very, very much better at doing sums with thousands and millions in them than people from the rest of Europe.

And the explanation for that was that before we had the euro as the European currency, people who lived in Italy had the lira. And because there had been quite a lot of inflation in the past in Italy, you had lots and lots of thousands of lira if you went into a shop to buy something, you would be buying in thousands. So yes, I think that it's very hard for us to deal with numbers that are outside our normal range of experience.

Mr. BLASTLAND: It's Michael here, we did ask people, we went out into the street and just said to people, how much do you think this government, the British government, spends on health each year? And we gave them some choices, and we said is it seven million pounds a year, is it 70, 700 million? Is it seven billion or even seven trillion? And the amazing thing is that we got all those answers. People really struggle enormously as soon as the words million or billion are added to numbers.

MONTAGNE: Well, are numbers themselves getting bigger? I mean, after this recession is over, do you see a day when corporations will report earnings or losses, if it comes to that, in trillions?

Mr. DILNOT: I think we will be using numbers with more and more zeros. It probably won't get any harder for us than it is already, because while the numbers for the economy as a whole will have more and more zeros, so will the number for our paycheck, the number for the value of our house. So our own experiences will kind of keep up with the numbers.

MONTAGNE: Here's another number. Thanks to the two of you for joining us.

Mr. DILNOT: It's been a delight.

Mr. BLASTLAND: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Michael Blastland is a journalist, and Andrew Dilnot is an economist. Their new book is called "The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life."

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