How many elephants?

I do so love The Onion – for those who have missed it, it’s a satirical newspaper in the US that also has a very good online section. I spotted this recently (see it here) and while it raises a good chuckle as a concept, it does also highlight a point about science communication (yes, *that* again, or even, yes, that *again*).

I appreciate then when reporting these kinds of things (how big some new dinosaur is, how deep a new cave goes or whatever) it is incredibly useful to give people a frame of reference. Just how tall is 13 m? What does 50 tons look like? These are tricky concepts for people who are not used to dealing with things like that, so relating them to a familiar concept or everyday physical object will really help to get the point across.

However, the problem comes from the non-standard units being used. OK, so in the UK at least buses are pretty much uniform, but we are forever getting weights in elephants and heights in stories and these are hardly standard measures! I am looking out of a 7th storey windown into one that is on the tenth floor of the building opposite. Oh. So a putative dinosaur that could stretch to the 10th floor could be horrifying visitors in the hotel opposite, or I would be staring at the middle of its neck while it savaged (or not) people about 8 or 10 metres above me. Hmmm. And elephants. Adult female Indian elephants weight about half that of big African bulls. So if this dinosaur weighted the same as 30 elepahnts – which? I could double or halve its weight at a stroke….

Now I know this might seem pedantic (how unlike me), but this does seem to undercut the point of the comparison. The idea is to give people a frame of reference, but instead all it does is add ambiguity. Thirty metres is thirty metres whether Joe Public gets it or not, 10 storeys is not an SI unit. Ok, so it is also unreasonable to ask the press to say “weighed as much a 7 adult bull African elephants” instead of “weighed as much a 7 elephants”, as they just won’t do it, but they could at least find a better comparison. The Times is expecially good at this, using buses, football pitches (which while non standard, vary only a little in length / width) or well known buildings and landmarks like Nelson’s column, so it is certainly possible.

It is handy to get people to appreciate some of the numbers that science throws up, not everyone is au fait with light years, millions of years, tons, kph and the rest, either as absolutes or just concepts. Finding a way of expressing that is useful, it makes science more accessible. But it tends to be at the expense of actually communcating the figures in the first place. What’s the point of trying to show the public what ’30 m’ means if you use a highly variable reference point like the height of a house that leaves people with a frame of reference that could be twice the intended number?

This is a revised Mk.1 post, to see the original with comments etc., go here.

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