What can be more precise than numbers? Ten is 10. No argument.

But Brooks Hamilton, my colleague at the University of Maine, used to grumble that journalists were too often dazzled by numbers. We had been taught to be as precise as possible in writing news. That often meant throw in some numbers, even if you had to temper them with “about” or “nearly.” The news services, such as the Associated Press, he said, were particularly prone to “number-ness.”

This lent the illusion of precision, he said. The affliction may well go beyond news writers. Many who fancy ourselves storytellers may believe our stories richer if we lace them with numbers.

Brooks, a graduate of Bates College and the eminence grise of Maine journalism, is long gone, but numbers continue to dazzle folks who dutifully use numbers as if they clarified everything. Often, they don’t.

In these examples, numbers muddle everything:

Each Monday, we hear, “The average price of gasoline last week in Maine” was, say, $2.859 a gallon. That may be correct. But it means little, if anything. If you live in Paris or Norway, you know that over the years you have paid below the statewide “average.”

I can’t prove it, but I’ll bet this trend set in about 30 years ago when Irving Oil began supplying a station at Market Square in Paris. C.N. Brown Co. is based in Paris. I wouldn’t be surprised if Irving started a continual mini-gas-price war in C.N. Brown’s backyard. Whenever I toodle over Streaked Mountain to Paris or Norway, I plan to buy gas, even if I have half a tank. It’s usually less expensive there.

So, the price of gasoline depends on where you are. The average on Center Street in Auburn might mean something to you when you’re driving to work or wherever you’re driving when the needles hits the E spot. An average can be skewed by extremes. High prices Downeast or in Aroostook County might push the Maine average up to a figure you haven’t seen on any pumps around here. The range of prices across the state might mean more than the average, might give us some context in which to understand.

Today is the first full day of autumn, so the news services will file stories about, “How hot was it?” You already know this was one hot summer. And, we have read that August was the hottest in Portland in more than 100 years of records. But saying the average was 72.2 degrees doesn’t enlighten. It’s the high temperature each day that determines whether we go outside, the low each night whether we keep the fan running.

Don’t even try to understand a national average. A quick look at a weather map shows that Maine and the Pacific coast were extra hot. Even though places such as Kansas City and Fort Worth were in the 90s for days on end, much of the Great Plains was below “average.” The one certainty about “average” temperature may be that it never happens. If today’s “average” high is 62, bet on 54 or 73, but not 62. Not likely to happen.

To be sure, national averages may add to our information about global warming and similar mega-trends. But they can obscure what’s going on around here. They need context to mean much to us.

Our teacher in finite math in 1968 at UMKC started the course with an example of a meaningless average. A man drowned in a river “that averaged only two feet deep.” Yes, he said, but the water was 14 feet deep where the guy drowned. It averaged two feet, but that average meant nothing. The poor bloke is still waterlogged.

Other numbers come at us all the time, equally devoid of context. If you watch “60 Minutes” on Sunday night or listen to Maine Public radio on Monday morning, you almost certainly hear what new movies had the highest weekend box-office receipts.

But what does it mean that a movie grossed $100 million? That 10 million people plopped down $10 apiece? Or does it mean the total dollars spent on tickets? Or the U.S. total? Or the total that the film distribution company gets? The local movie house usually gets the smallest share of the ticket price, maybe 10 percent when a movie first hits the screen on Friday afternoon. Pass me some more of that $8 popcorn, please. And some context.

A better measure of a movie’s popularity to most of us would be the number of people who see it. With that information, we’d have some idea how to compare this week’s box-office smash with last week’s bomb. We need context for the numbers to have meaning.

On election night, if the TV folks report that Jared Golden is leading with 20 percent of the precincts reporting, we’d need to know whether those precincts included Lewiston, Bangor and Waterville. That might spell trouble for Golden. Expect him to do well in the cities, less so in Orrington, Amity and Plymouth. If he has an early lead in Plymouth, Amity and Orrington, the Ds may want to ice the champagne for some celebrating.

The lack of context for numbers shows up in national statistics all the time. Sometimes, the numbers just swamp us. How much is the federal budget? How much is the Gross Domestic Product (the total value of all goods and services sold)? The federal budget is $3.8 trillion. Can you wrap your head around that? Or, the GDP is $18.7 trillion. How much is that in money? How high would a stack of $20 bills worth $18.7 trillion stand? To Mars? To Pluto? Talk about number-ness.

Another teacher taught us that GDP itself is meaningless. If every householder in America paid a neighbor $100 ($704 in today’s money) to wash, dry and fold her laundry, $88.9 billion (today’s money) would change hands each week. And another neighbor would have brought me her laundry, so I would have got back my $704. The GDP would have risen by $1,408, but the economy would have gained nothing. As it is, I do my laundry, and my neighbor does her laundry and GDP is “lower.” Number-ness.

Bob Neal remembers well that the late U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Illinois, famously said, “A million here, a million there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.”


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