on issues of scale

Though it is not widely recognized as a superpower, I am coming to the point of view that having a proper understanding of scale is a hard and rare talent indeed.  So what do I mean by an understanding of scale?

Most of the numbers we encounter in our daily lives are fairly small, in mathematical terms.  To be honest, any number is small, in mathematical terms, but that’s a discussion for another post and another day.  Groceries and train tickets, vacations and books, these prices are measured in the tens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of pounds.

However, when reading the news, we encounter much larger numbers.  Going back to an earlier post, we disguise the size of these numbers by using words such as million, billion and trillion.  These words all sound remarkably similar and that similarity disguises the differences in their sizes.

These numbers are important because these cover income and expenditure at the national and international level.  The annual budget deficit, the amount the government spends on welfare and defence, the amount the government collects each year in taxes, these are measured in the billions.

I wonder whether it is our lack of understanding of just how big 1 billion is, or 10 billion, or 100 billion, whether it be pounds or grains of sand or anything, that contributes to a lack of comprehension of the scale of the government deficit each year.

What does it mean, to my imagination, to the way that I view the world, to say that 1 billion is 1000 times as large as 1 million, when I don’t have a good conception of what 1 million means, and I barely understand what 1000 means.  I’m not sure it means much of anything, as simply stated as this.

I’m sure there are there’s been some psychological research done on how we perceive large, very large things, but I haven’t yet dug into this.  (If you have a suggestion of where to look, definitely let me know, because I’m curious.)  But I find it an interesting question, to what extent does a difficulty in imagining and understanding scale affect political debate, particularly in the modern world of economic crisis and deficit.

~ by Jim Anderson on 28 June 2015.

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