# Running the Numbers

Hurkyl
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
Pi-e-root2.

Oh, you said at...

Gokul43201
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
Could it be that drawing 5 balloons next to the number '5' can help you understand what that symbol means, while drawing a billion balloons next to the number '1,000,000,000' causes innumeracy? I think it's very plausible...especially, if the audience doesn't take the effort to really look at the picture and extract anything more than an "ooh" out of it.

and because of this, it is even more important that we give it the condemnation it deserves.
Stalin said something to the effect that when one man dies it's a tragedy but when a million men die, it's a statistic. In other words, the "blindness" that should be condemned comes from reducing things to numbers and forgetting in the process that they represent actual things, or events, or rates. We wouldn't keep statistics on these things if they weren't important to keep track of in the first place. The illustrations presented by this artist operate as a reminder that the point of gathering statistics is to keep track of real amounts of real things in the real world to help make real decisions about how to proceed.

When I saw the one with the plastic bottles, I had to stop and think that I believe I've only bought/thrown away about five 'plastic bottles' in the last 3 years.

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Hurkyl
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
the "blindness" that should be condemned comes from reducing things to numbers and forgetting in the process that they represent actual things, or events, or rates.
Eh? You say this as if you're contradicting me. So, please tell me why your thing should be condemned but my thing should not.

We wouldn't keep statistics on these things if they weren't important to keep track of in the first place.
And the reason we use numbers is because the phrase "a lot" isn't precise enough to be useful. And the reason we analyze statistics is because a number in isolation isn't useful.

a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot

Chi Meson
Homework Helper
I don't see how he's promoting innumeracy. If anything, I thought he was trying to make it more tangible to the person for whom those large numbers mean very little.
I agree. This is the opposite of promoting innumeracy. The bald numbers are meaningless to most people who make no mental distinction between a thousand and a billion.

Edit: I only now noticed page 2 of this thread, so others already said what I did.

Anyway, I liked the bit about the Yukon Denali. The mountain in the picture it creates is, of course, Denali itself (AKA Mt McKinley). Did you notice that the blacked logos were switched so that they read "Denial" instead of "Denali"?

Edit edit: oh, that's the title of the piece: "Denali Denial." You know, those SUVs could be powered by synthetic fuel from reprocessing all those plastic bags and bottles! That would take care of three or four of his "works"

You know, the statistical "wow" is the only neat part of these works. It wouldn't care to go out of my way just to look at them; I wouldn't want them on my wall. Maybe the Seurat rip-off.

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Hurkyl
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
I agree. This is the opposite of promoting innumeracy. The bald numbers are meaningless to most people who make no mental distinction between a thousand and a billion.
The most dangerous form of innumeracy when people believe they really do understand what the numbers are telling them. :grumpy:

The most dangerous form of innumeracy when people believe they really do understand what the numbers are telling them. :grumpy:
I've heard that a million times

Chi Meson
Homework Helper
The most dangerous form of innumeracy when people believe they really do understand what the numbers are telling them. :grumpy:
I still don't think "innumeracy" is the correct term for your condemnation. I can see your point as the works being statistics taken out of context, and therefore falling under the "lying with statistics" banner. Or more simply using the power of "oh wow, that's a lot" to take the place of making a valid political point ( I think that's sort of what you said). But I really do not agree that making a visual representation of large numbers contributes to "innumeracy."

turbo
Gold Member
The most dangerous form of innumeracy when people believe they really do understand what the numbers are telling them. :grumpy:
The only danger is in ignorance. If the ignorance can be alleviated by visual imagery, instruction in the mathematical concept of orders-of-magnitude, or maybe by a field trip to a recycling depot where millions of plastic bottles a day are sorted and processed, it does not matter. What matters is that you have made a difference in some persons' perceptions of our consumerism. Everybody has their own triggers. Someone may love this guy's work and someone else may be moved by Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" ("they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot"). Lots of people have campaigned against consumerism and over-commercialization over the years, and this artist has a pretty nice way of bringing his point home visually. If you want to complain that he's not teaching math, you're barking up the wrong tree. He's an artist with a message and a pretty neat method of getting it across. Most of the posters on this thread seem to understand that he is helping ordinary people (with maybe no post-HS math) mentally bridge the gap between large numbers of consumables, and insanely large numbers of consumables. To a person who thinks 1000 is a very large number and has trouble relating it to a million or a billion, this is a tremendous service. You and I can do this OOM math very easily. Lots of people cannot.

Point in case: There is a HUGE majority of voters in the US that don't realize that every trillion dollars of debt that our government accrues obligates us taxpayers to pay back one thousand billion dollars plus interest. If they did, the Reagan and Bush tax cuts would never have gone through.

Chi Meson
Homework Helper
I was just thinking since my last post, that such a presentation of "visual aids to large numbers" should be followed by a simple question. Have people look at the works, then ask "is that too much"?

"There are 300+ million Americans, are there too many children without health care?"
"Are there too many trees cut down to supply only catalogs?" etc.

Either way, the pictorial aspect is one step of the way to understanding the numbers better.

or that 100 million tons of coal, 100 million barrels of oil, and a billion cubic feet of gas are burned each day

(or something close)

JasonRox
Homework Helper
Gold Member
I totally understand what Hurkyl is saying. If I understand him correctly, I agree with him. The pictures are going to get people to "think" they know what the big numbers mean.

I still like the idea of the art though!

Hurkyl
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
But I really do not agree that making a visual representation of large numbers contributes to "innumeracy."
What about telling people that they can make meaning of these statistics in this way?

Hurkyl
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
The only danger is in ignorance.
Such as ignorance of the fact that these images have essentially nothing to do with the statistics they depict. A very real danger, IMHO, apparently even among educated people.

If the ignorance can be alleviated by visual imagery, instruction in the mathematical concept of orders-of-magnitude,
Of course, these images do not give such instruction. Didn't I already demonstrate that in post #24? And gosh darn it, stop focusing on the order of magnitude thing; the major problem here is that the meaning of the original statistic is lost entirely in the translation, yet the artist promises this is a way to make meaning of yet.

What matters is that you have made a difference in some persons' perceptions of our consumerism.
What also matters in this case is that you have perpetuated ignorance.

If you want to complain that he's not teaching math, you're barking up the wrong tree.
I want to complain that he is ignorant, he is perpetuating ignorance, and that you are defending it. (I assume he's ignorant; of course it might be that he isn't, and is just consciously trying to manipulate people with this standard propaganda technique)

Most of the posters on this thread seem to understand that he is helping ordinary people (with maybe no post-HS math) mentally bridge the gap between large numbers of consumables, and insanely large numbers of consumables.
Is it a large number of consumables? I wouldn't know. 2 million plastic bottles per 5 minutes is a lot more than I could deal with on a personal level, but for the entirety of the United States, I have no frame of reference for judging whether that's a large, insanely large, or even a small number.

The artist wants to tell me that it's large, or maybe even insanely large. Why should I believe him? Certainly not because of his art! But does the ordinary person realize that? Do you realize that?!?!

To a person who thinks 1000 is a very large number and has trouble relating it to a million or a billion, this is a tremendous service. You and I can do this OOM math very easily. Lots of people cannot.
This art certainly doesn't do that. I even demonstrated how the artist has managed to almost entirely hide a factor of 2000 in rate of consumption. And as I've said over and over, an abstract number doesn't convey what a statistic is telling you.

The artist is multiplying what should be divided.

300 million people and 2 million plastic bottles every 5 minutes.

I was thinking of making a feature length movie where 5 people sit around looking at his painting for 2.5 hours. During that time they share a bottle of water. Do you think it would spark as much controversy as this painting?

I can see the final scene already. The gaping darkness of the trash bin as the plastic bottle flies through the air in slow motion towards it. Eventually it is engulfed in darkness and the camera follows, fade to black, roll credits.

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The sequal will be a comedy. A family of 6 have stolen the world supply of bottled fluids and are expending them at an alarming rate of 4 million/hour each. The world becomes very angry at the family and hijinks ensue as national officials follow the trail of litter in hot pursuit.

The art doesn't strike me as focusing on any environmental impact. I don't see any environment in the photo. My first impression would be 'ooh, big numbers' and then I would think about consumerism. If this is the artists purpose then I find his representation to be misleading.

It would be easy for someone to walk away from this painting with an individual sense of responsibility for ALL of those objects. In trying to represent the number as a whole he has broken it apart from any meaning. The conclusions that people will draw from his art will likely be false. Persuading people to accept responsibility I think is a good idea. Doing it through deception or innaccuracy I do not agree with. The truth in this case would be expressed as a ratio, not one single incomprehensible, mind-boggling number.

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Chi Meson
Homework Helper
What about telling people that they can make meaning of these statistics in this way?
Well I'd agree that this would further increase numeracy.

Just by teaching someone how to read words, without teaching them about subject-verb agreement, does not contribute to illiteracy. In the same way, a first step toward better understanding of numbers is not bad in itself.

Being fairly numerate myself, I would have to come down on the side of "this is indeed too much" for several (not all) of the displays. I think that too many paper bags and not enough plastic bags are used.

Those plastic bags should have a returnable price on them, they are valuable fuel. Have the scouts or whatever go on a bag collection routine; even at a penny apiece, they could (literally) rake it in.

(How many=y) people out of (how many=x) people will walk away with (what percentage=%) increase in (what area=z) that may affect (an unknown part=p) *if* they (do perceive/recognize=%) that it even relates to (an unknown part=p) of a (part=p') of the way that their (part=p*) influences (both=input + output) and the (effects=a! to z!) of the (micro-environment niche=m^n) to the (macroenvironment=MEarth^n), and then (how many=YYY?) people will do (anything=me?^n) about it?

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Chi Meson
Homework Helper
The artist is multiplying what should be divided.

300 million people and 2 million plastic bottles every 5 minutes.

I was thinking of making a feature length movie where 5 people sit around looking at his painting for 2.5 hours. During that time they share a bottle of water. Do you think it would spark as much controversy as this painting?
For this reason alone it would be worthwhile to prompt a question just like that. Boil that fantastically large number down to "you." IF the numbers appear to be too large "to you," then what does it take to be an average contributor to this number.

And who is to say that the viewers do not think of this. Some don't I'm sure, but to assume that we know the reaction of all viewers is presumptuous (well, yeah, by definition).

To deny that the artist is making a environmental point is silly. But I think that he is missing an opportunity of bringing the point home by not prompting further analysis of these numbers.

Yes I think we use too many plastic bottles just for dumb things like water that is no better than the tap water from the sink. But the alternative is not clear: the tap is inconvenient; the cups used with water coolers are plastic too (and more disposable and less recyclable); not many people want to carry a reusable Nalgene bottle around all the time. Plus, a large portion of those bottles are reused in one way or another, either in recycled plastics, or in energy recovery incinerators. So in the final analysis, after asking "is this too much" we have to honestly ask "is this a significant problem?"

In some cases, such as the children without healthcare and the "catalog-trees," I think the answer is yes. The former should go without saying, the latter is my considered and educated opinion.

People see what they want to see, regardless of what someone wants to tell them.