Explaining large numbers

It can be very hard to convey the meaning and importance of large numbers. As Joseph Stalin infamously said (or perhaps didn’t): “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.” The point being that we can conceive of one person dying, perhaps our mother or a friend. We can understand it and feel it. However horrific the deaths of a million, the size of the number itself turns it into an abstraction.

The video above explores a concept that is abstract to begin with (the national debt) and made even more incomprehensible by having an impossibly large number attached to it (15 trillion). So, how do you make an abstract idea and a massive number meaningful? By personalizing it.

I like the video’s approach, but like other attempts to dividing up a huge number into individual shares, a certain amount of dishonesty is involved. Nation debt, of course, isn’t the same as family debt. For one thing, your family can’t just print more money (though in some ways the availability of a printing press means the national debt is even more scary). Also, there is a big difference between one family living beyond its means and, by extension, every single family in the country living beyond its means.

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2 comments

  1. This is an insight in to a subject I have never thought about. I particularly agree with the statement “However horrific the deaths of a million, the size of the number itself turns it into an abstraction.” This site is one example: http://www.statisticfacts.org/

  2. A very humorous, yet insightful way to look at America’s financial situation. You get a mini lesson to see how ridiculous institutions operate, if only this video reached the public before the guy and others increased their debt limits.

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