And yet we must, especially in an era in which numbers often drive the news: Public polls, political races, economic indicators — which are not to be confused with the stock market — inflation, unempl0yment, wage stagnation, research results, medical risks. When we get the numbers wrong, we get the news wrong. That offers fodder to our critics and confuses an already overwhelmed public.
I’m no expert, something I am always painfully reminded of at tax time. I could probably learn Icelandic before I’ll learn accountant-speak. But I trust myself to do what I consider common-sense math. And common sense prompts me to check my work with someone who does know numbers, and to ask for help when I am left clueless.
I also look for examples in published stories of journalists who know how to report out numbers and then translate them so they are understandable, often by using everyman analogies. That’s not dumbing stories down; it’s smarting them up.
I found a recent example in The Seattle Times in from, of all people, novelist David Guterson. Guterson lives on Bainbridge Island, across Elliott Bay from downtown Seattle. A former high school English teacher, his 1994 novel “Snow Falling on Cedars” was greeted with critical acclaim, prompting Guterson to turn to writing full-time.
In his Seattle Times piece, his subject is the inevitable “mega-quake” that will hit Seattle. That’s a subject Seattleites like to avoid as much as many journalists like to avoid numbers. But Guterson argues the folly of doing either. Facing the inevitability of an earthquake, and preparing for it, could be the difference between life and death.
Facing — or avoiding — risk
It’s not new territory. Guterson leans heavily on “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz of the New Yorker, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. He points out what is and isn’t most likely about the scenario Schulz presents, then drills down into numbers. Among them, the mostly misunderstood information conveyed by the Richter scale and its more recent replacement, the moment magnitude scale. From his piece:
The moment magnitude scale suggests phenomena that get more intense by steady, equal degrees, one-tenth of a whole number at a time. In other words, it suggests that a 9.2 earthquake would be about a third more intense than a 6.2. That isn’t how it is, though, because the moment magnitude scale is logarithmic. A 9.2 is in fact many thousands of times more intense than a 6.2.
But the numerical argument that really made in impression was Guterson’s discussion of the likelihood of a Seattle-centered earthquake, known as a “megathrust quake,” in our lifetimes. In other words, he lays out the odds.
Quakes of this sort occur in our region on average every 500 years. The last one happened 322 years ago, and the one before that about 1,300 years ago. You might choose to focus on the fact that about 1,000 years passed between the two, but only if you’re an insistently cup-half-full person. For everybody else, it might be chastening to hear that the interval between the quake of 1,300 years ago and the one before it was around 320 years.
I can do enough common-sense math to arrive at a sobering number: Two years. And then to ponder whether I’m a cup-half-full person, or just in denial.
Guterson then nails his argument by offering some analogies to help consider the odds:
The odds of a 9.0 quake impacting the coastal Pacific Northwest over the next 50 years is said, by seismologists, to be about 14%. Maybe you’ll take those odds and bet against it happening. They’re not terrible, after all: about the same that an NFL kicker will miss a 37-yard field goal. On the other hand, about the same odds — 15% (as estimated by The New York Times on Election Day morning, 2016) — were attached to a Donald Trump triumph over Hillary Clinton.
Those are numbers I understand, made me laugh out loud — and got me out in the garage to update my earthquake survival kit.
PS: Always think of your audience. The NFL analogy Guterson used likely wouldn’t work in cultures that aren’t somewhat familiar with American-style football. When you use comparisons, similes or metaphors, you need to consider who you’re trying to reach, and use language that makes your story more — not less — accessible.