On how contextualising statistics in more everyday terms can make them more compelling

On how contextualising statistics in more everyday terms can make them more compelling

Contrast the following two statements:

  1. Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing the rock from the sun to the early and hitting the target within one third of a mile if dead center.
  2. Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing a rock from New York to Los Angeles and hitting the target within two thirds of an inch of dead center.

Which statement seems more accurate?

As you may have guessed, the accuracy levels in both questions are exactly the same, but when different groups evaluated the two statements, 58 percent of respondents ranked the statistic about the sun to the earth as “very impressive.” That jumped to 83 percent for the statistic about New York to Los Angeles. We have no human experience, no intuition, about the distance between the sun and the earth, The distance from New York to Los Angeles is much more tangible. (Though, frankly, it’s still far from tangible. The problem is that if you make the distance more tangible — like a football field — then the accuracy becomes intangible. “Throwing, a rock the distance of a football field to an accuracy of 3.4 microns” doesn’t help.)

Excerpt from: Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

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