What Everyone Ought to Know About Numbers

The news is full of numbers; startling headlines containing big scary numbers.

Are those numbers really big?  Politicians love to create a stir and news paper owners pay journalists to shock.  Those big numbers they use do the job perfectly.  They cause us to stop, thank and react, but should we be frightened or are they just fooling us?

Next time you are faced with a shocking statistic, ask yourself a simple question;

“Is that a big number?”

Two Billion Dementia Patients

The story – by the end of 2050 the number of people expected to have Dementia is 2 billion.

2 billion, is that a big number?

The population of the earth in 2012 was 7 billion.  By 2050 there will be nearer 10 billion.  So according to the headline 1 person in every 5 will have dementia.

Now that is a scary thought, but does it sound likely to you?  Probably not.

I re-read the article (a little more carefully).  What it says is that the “population at risk of having the disease is two billion”.  Or 1 in 5 of us may eventually go senile as we get older.

Don’t get me wrong, senility is tragic to see, my father lost his mind before he died, but he did die at the ripe old age of 86 with 8 grand children.

2 billion doesn’t look so scary when you think about it like that.  It probably means there will be more dementia because we will all live longer.  Maybe that is a good thing,  I wonder what will happen to the other 4 in 5 of us.

Sudden Cardiac Deaths Rise by 10% in Young Americans

The story – the number of adolescents and young adults dying each year from sudden cardiac arrest in the US rose by about 10% between 1989 and 1996

10%, is that a big number?

The news article goes on to say that the number of sudden cardiac deaths in the 15–34 age group went up from 2,724 in 1989 to 3,000 in 1996.  An increase of 276 deaths.

Is that a problem?  The population of the US is 316 million.  The average life expectancy of a US Citizen is 78.94 years (call it 80 to help with my maths).  So the number of people in the 20 year age range (15 to 34) is roughly a quarter of 316 million which is 79 million.

The shocking 10% annual increase is 276 people in every 79 million.  Or 1 extra death in every 286 thousand people (about the size of the city I live in).

I have no doubt it is very sad for those involved, but in Afghanistan 1 in 5 children doesn’t even reach school age.  We should all be so lucky.

Police Privatisation: ‘£5 Million Could Be Wasted’

The story – UK police forces could spend up to £5 million in their search for a private partnership which might never go ahead.

£5 million, is that a big number?

In the UK there are 132,235 police officers.  £5,000,000 is £37 a head, or about the price of a set of boots.  The total police budget is £5.63bn.  £5 million is about one thousandth of the total spend (and that is before the “coulds” and “mights” in the story).

I am happy to believe that the UK government wastes money, it spends £695 billion a year, I am sure they are flushing my tax money away at an alarming rate, but police private partnerships (successful or not) don’t even count as a drop.

So ask yourself, is that a big number

Next time you get excited about a budget challenge or poor performance figures remember that a number by itself is meaningless; put it in context.  Size is relative.

Sit back and ask yourself; “is that a big number?”  If it’s not, go and find a bigger one to worry about.

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Image by Laineys Repertoire


  1. James,
    A healthy degree of skepticism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skepticism), in the true sense, is always useful when it comes to numbers. As Disraeli said “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lies,_damned_lies,_and_statistics).


    • James Lawther says:

      Interesting link to skepticism Adrian. We normally think of a skeptic as a bad / unhelpful person. Maybe that is not always the case.

  2. Hello James

    I learned sometime ago that every ‘story’ has an author. And every author has an agenda. Almost always that agenda has to do with the way that the author makes a living and/or gains status. So if I do some research into the author I can figure out, in advance, the story he will tell.

    Being finance trained I have been trained to look at absolute numbers, the absolute change, and the percentage. Yet, as a human being that works on automatic pilot, I continue to find myself falling into all the traps that we all fall into. That is because the smart authors know what will hook as emotionally. And as such they bypass our rational minds.


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