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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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