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.

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Why the Ed Stone continues to haunt Labour

The party has been fined a record £20,000 for undeclared election spending.

It’s one of the great unsolved political mysteries of our time. What really happened to the Ed Stone? Was it smashed in to little tiny pieces or is it still gathering moss in a warehouse? For those of you who have been living under a rock, or in this case a giant tablet, since last year’s general election — the Ed Stone was the much-mocked policy plinth which the former Labour leader, Ed Miliband, promised to place in the rose garden of Downing Street if he won.  

It was unveiled amid much fanfare only to spark a wave of viral humiliation for the beleaguered Miliband. The Mole remembers peering painfully through its paws and trying to ignore the smirks of its fellow rodents. Now, the spectre of the ill-fated tablet has arisen to cause the Labour Party one final humiliation.  

An investigation by the Electoral Commission has revealed that two sums totalling £7,614 were spent on the Ed Stone which were missing from the party’s election return. The report found that in total Labour failed to correctly declare 74 payments worth £123,748 of campaign spending “without a reasonable excuse”. They were also missing 33 separate invoices totalling £34,392.

The commission said Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, who is also its registered treasurer, had committed two election offences and imposed a record £20,000 fine — the biggest since it began operating in 2001.

All of which has left the Labour Party red-faced once more, and the mole feeling slightly nostalgic for the days when politics was simple and the news was full of amusing images of politicians smearing bacon sandwiches across their faces and striking the odd biblical pose in front of a giant stone. Don’t forget, if the Ed Stone was standing proudly in Downing Street today, then Brexit would just be a bad dream.


I'm a mole, innit.