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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.