Understanding the Numbers Behind Climate Change, Unemployment and the Olympics

John Allen Paulos in his excellent Who's Counting column at ABC News:

ScreenHunter_13 Mar. 09 22.16 As usual, simple arithmetic is crucial to understanding many of the biggest, most important news stories (as well as those, like the Tiger Woods saga, that are of no public significance). What follows is a collage of some of these stories.

One problem is that people often view numbers as providing decoration rather than information. Over the last couple of weeks, for example, I performed a little experiment with people I randomly met.

If our idle conversation turned to current events, I mentioned a headline I claimed to have just read proclaiming, “Experts Fear Annual Housing Costs in the U.S. (Rent, Mortgage Payments) May Top $2 Billion.” I followed up with, “Imagine that — more than 2 billion dollars per year.”

People usually responded by bemoaning the mortgage crisis, foreclosures, Wall Street, and a host of other issues. Only one noticed that $2 billion is an absurdly low number. A population of 300 million translates to about 100 million households. Dividing 100 million into $2 billion results in about $20 in rent or mortgage paid annually by the average household. Just $20!

More here.