New browser plugin stops people bamboozling you with numbers

Dictionary of Numbers provides that much needed context.

I've written before about how numbers without context are meaningless. Remember the claim that "every year in Spain alone… between 6 and 18 million birds and bats are killed by wind farms"? We're used to things that number in the millions being a lot, but without context, our intuitions can mislead us. So, for instance, if I claimed that "every year in Spain alone, between 6 and 18 million bytes of pornography are downloaded", your gut reaction might be that the Spanish are porn-hungry sex-fiends – until you realise that a moderately sized picture file is around one million bytes. That stat would in fact make Spain one of the most prudish countries in the world.

So, for the wind farm example, we found a few comparisons: in the US, power lines killed 130 million birds a year, while windows took between 100 million and almost a billion each year.

That's useful – and served to put some scaremongering at rest – but we can't all be looking up US Department of Agriculture papers when there's a potentially misleading statistic. So rejoice! For there is now a Chrome extension that can do the same thing automatically.

Dictionary of Numbers "searches through the page for numbers it can understand, and when it finds one, adds an inline explanation for that number in human terms". What that means is that a report of a forest fire destroying 297,845 acres of land is followed up by a little square bracket telling you "[≈ Hong Kong]"; something 100m high is [≈ height of the Statue of Liberty (foundation of pedestal to torch)].

As Glen Chiacchieri, the developer of the extension, writes:

One could write Dictionary of Numbers off as a tool for mathematically-inclined folk, but the fact is that understanding and reasoning about numbers is an essential part of modern society. After all, it's important to know just how much of the United States was on fire.

Sadly, the extension doesn't yet have any comparisons for the figure "8 million birds", so when it comes to dealing with the critiques of climate sceptics, we're still going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. And while it's handy for money in dollars, pound sterling leaves it upset and confused. But there's a third problem with the plugin, as well. As Randall Munroe reports:

It can also come across as unexpectedly judgmental. Glen told me about complaint he got from a user: “I installed your extension and then forgot about it … until I logged into my bank account. Apparently my total balance is equal to the cost of a low-end bicycle. Thanks.”

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.