Coping with large numbers

Posted: April 6, 2011 in Books, Statistics
Tags: , , , ,

A double-page spread from the book

Numbers can get a little overwhelming. But when you are talking about human beings, it is essential to make some effort to imagine what ten thousand or one million or ten million people look like. I suspect decisions are sometimes made, rashly discounting their effects on large numbers of people, simply because the decision-maker was faced only with numbers on a bare page.

The innovative book One million human beings: One million bombs depicts one million people iconographically, ten thousand to a page. Random individuals are singled out to represent a broader story.

The book is focused on the tragedy of warfare and its proceeds are donated to the anti-landmine cause. In the bloody 75-year period from 1914 to 1989 it just boggles the mind how many human beings were killed violently at the hands of others. The number could be as high as 200 million. Nearly all of them were the result of ideological divisions. (Which is why my blood pressure starts rising whenever I hear people hanker for the “good old days” when people were more certain of their convictions.)

It is extremely sobering. It does not contain a lot of text. But the message, learned from this book, can be applied anywhere. Numbers are all too easy to spout. Here are some about today’s world:

  • 2.1 billion people live on less than two dollars a day.
  • 1 billion people live in slums.
  • 884 million live without access to clean drinking water.
  • 42 million pregnancies end in abortion annually.

I won’t say this book makes it easier to cope with the enormity of these challenges but it at least attempts to put a human face on the numbers.

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