Big numbers can make the story and put it all in perspective. But too often they’re just bullshit.

Just how bad was the destruction in Haiti? On mega disasters stories, it’s hard to get a grip. An LA Times story puts it in perspective:

The amount of debris is stunning. Officials estimate they will have to clean up as much as 25 million cubic yards of material — enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome five times over. By comparison, detritus from the destroyed World Trade Center amounted to about 1 million cubic yards.

If true, the LA Times’ Ken Ellingwood has helped us imagine the magnitude of Haiti’s pain.

Photo by Brian Vander Brug illustrates an LA Times story that attempts to put into perspective the vast amount of debris that must be moved in Haiti.

But is it true?

Ellingwood doesn’t say it’s true — he simply reports an “officials estimate.” Nice.

Bottom line is, we haven’t a clue.

It’s easy to misuse numbers.

Closer to home, this often comes up in reporting on the projected costs and benefits of public works projects and government initiatives. The costs are generally understated and the benefits inflated, the numbers literally pulled from the air regardless of whose name they are hung off.

Do you really know how much any of the various health care proposals would cost (even if you think you know what the proposals themselves call for), or who would pay what and how? The truth is, we haven’t a clue.

At last week’s groundbreaking for the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn (the planned future home for the New Jersey Nets), Gov. Paterson stated as fact long discredited job-creation figures: “This project at Atlantic Yards will yield 16,000 union construction jobs and 5,500 permanent jobs right here on the site.”

An artist's rendering of the planned Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Like numbers surrounding the project, the rendering is nothing concrete.

The Times published Paterson’s quote — within quotation marks — along with other nonsensical projections that weren’t attributed to anyone, even though it knows many of them to be false. Now, because these numbers appeared in the Times, other media end up citing them as fact, without qualification.

A Google News search the next day picked up 418 news articles that included references to “Barclays Center” and the numbers 16,000 and 5,500. (Some of these articles were critical of the project; most largely echoed the company line.)

After considering how easily fake numbers are incorporated into stories like the Barclays Center groundbreaking, I’d have to digest the Haitian-World Trade Center analogy with at least a grain of salt.

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One response to “Big numbers can make the story and put it all in perspective. But too often they’re just bullshit.

  1. I come up reference an olive department in sole hand, and the self-determination fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch become lower from my hand.

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