7 billion

October 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Seven billion is not a number you can count to on your fingers. The media loves to make pointless comparisons that emphasise the size of the number. From my local rag:

“$6.2 billion: Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s net worth, according to a September Forbes estimate, is even exceeded by the population number 7 billion.”

It should considered a victory for media literacy that they got the direction of the inequality right. The comparison, and ones beside it in a infographic, all make seven billion seem like a lot. And it is when compared to the number of people in your living room. But it’s not compared to the number of bacteria in your body. Just because you can’t count that high doesn’t mean that number of people can’t exist on Earth. I think this is a big part of the reason why the problem of overpopulation, which I recognise is a legitimate concern, is often overstated (see this report from the Radical Statistics Population Studies Group for more on this).

Those of us who juggle orders of magnitude professionally have log scales and scientific notation to help us. How do we help those without these tools? For a start, compare numbers of people to numbers of people, rather than numbers of dollars. The infographic does compare seven billion to the number of people who can fit in AT&T Park, which is better than nothing. I’d prefer something like this:

  • The world population is about 22 USAs.
  • The US population is about 42 Bay Areas.
  • So the world population is about 900 to 1000 Bay Areas.
I think this kind of unsensationalist description is genuinely useful.

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