Six Billion Ways Numbers Confound Us

By Mike Feinsilber

Okay, I exaggerate. There are only 4.247 billion ways people who write use numbers—purposefully or innocently—in ways that mislead the reader or puzzle him.

For example: In the Washington Post of September 18, 2015, Sibley Memorial Hospital ran an ad which said: “Sibley Memorial Hospital is ranked in the top 10 percent of hospitals nationwide for hip and knee replacement.” It cites U.S. News & World Report as its source.

Without context, we are left to wonder, “10 percent of what?” Is Sibley among the 10 percent of hospitals that do the most hip and knee jobs? Among the top 10 percent in how much it charges? Among the 10 percent with the best results?

We expect advertisers (even hospitals) to conceal. But news writers do it too. Take this 22 second quiz:

This summer, the Post ran an article about David Skorton, who left Cornell University to become the new secretary of the Smithsonian. It said: “Wednesday’s visit to the American History museum was one of many the 66-year-old Skorton will make over the next few months as he learns about the people and facilities that make up the $1.3 billion Smithsonian Institution.”

Does that $1.3 billion mean:

*The Smithsonian and its collections are worth that much?

*If someone bought the Smithsonian he’d have to pay $1.3 billion?

*Even though it charges no admission fees, its revenues are $1.3 billion?

I couldn’t tell, so I emailed the story’s author. She replied: “The Smithsonian’s annual budget is $1.3 billion …”

Oh. Was I supposed to know that?

Confounding numbers pop up often and all over. In July, a New Yorker article about mediation quoted a Reuters article, which quoted Ray Dalio “of the hundred-and-seventy-billion-dollar hedge fund Bridgewater Associates.” (He said mediation is “the biggest ingredient for whatever success I’ve had” but that is beside the point. ) The point is I can’t guess what the $170 billion represents.

On its website, the New York Times referred to a “$1.2 billion scandal at Toshiba.” Would that be what it cost Toshiba to undo the damage done by the scandal?

Nope. To its credit, the Times revised the story: “On Tuesday … the chief executive and two of his predecessors resigned, along with several lesser executives, over accusations that they drove the company to overstate its earnings by $1.2 billion over the last seven years.”

Oh. Was I supposed to know that?

In August, the Times itself scolded former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. She had used numbers to misrepresent. It quoted her: “When you manage in tough times, when you lead in tough times, sometimes tough calls are necessary, and yet we took that company from about $44 billion to almost $90 billion…”

Ahemed the Times, in the next paragraph:

“Here’s the problem: Those numbers she is referencing aren’t Hewlett-Packard’s profit. They are the company’s revenue. And if you make enough acquisitions—especially one the size of Compaq —you can inflate your revenue figures. You can also buy growth.”

Here’s the point: It ain’t just me. Unless the reader knows what is being counted, big numbers out of context confound.

So when you write, ask yourself what the number you just tapped out represents. Ask the guy sitting one desk over.

About that “Six Billion” in the headline: that was just to get you to read this. Any number can play this game.
Mike Feinsilber spent a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.

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