Understanding The Analogy

The number of football pitches or Olympic-sized swimming pools… all typical analogies used to help us understand vast numbers. But are these analogies actually any good? Do we need better ways of communicating environmental information, asks Gev Eduljee?

The importance of science in our daily lives is taken for granted these days – no one would gainsay the impressive advances we have made these past two generations, in all aspects of life. But along with technological prowess we are paying an environmental price for the lifestyles we have come to expect and enjoy – pollution, waste, loss of habitat, climate change… the list lengthens.

Conveying environmental information and data to non-scientists has challenged the ingenuity of communicators. In particular, how does one comprehend very small or very large numbers that we rarely, if ever, experience personally? The answer – by analogy.

In the 1970s, the challenge was pollution and the significance of very small numbers.  Concern over pesticides, dioxins and PCBs sparked novel ways of depicting what a part per million or a part per billion meant. The swimming pool analogy was a particular favourite – half a teaspoon in an Olympic-size swimming pool (ppb). Other efforts: one minute in two years (ppm), one inch in 16 miles (ppm), three seconds out of a century (ppb), and if you jump 1 foot in the air you have travelled I ppb distance to the moon.

As the sheer scale of waste became apparent, the focus shifted to very large numbers.  Football pitches, buildings, ships and double decker buses became hot favourites. Some examples from the website RecycleBins:

  • The glass recycling level in the UK saves enough energy to launch 10 space shuttles
  • The glass bottles and jars we throw away will fill the Empire State Building every 3 weeks
  • The paper and card we use annually in the UK weighs the equivalent of 260 QE2 liners
  • Every Christmas we throw away enough wrapping paper to cover 11,000 football pitches
  • The amount of waste paper sent to landfill each year would fill 103,000 double decker buses
  • You could drive a car 11 metres on the oil it takes to make 1 plastic bag

And another – each year the US produces garbage equal to the weight of 5,600 aircraft carriers, 247,000 space shuttles or 2.3 million Boeing 747 jumbo jets.

Apart from “so what” and the quizzical look some of these analogies may prompt from those unacquainted with spacecraft and luxury liners, does this admittedly well-intentioned mode of communication convey anything meaningful or stir up the sort of emotions the communicator intends?  Does it lead to a light bulb moment and conversion to a concerned citizen or is it misconceived and patronising?

Answering yes or no depends on whether there are better ways of communicating environmental information, other than through contorted analogies. Of course each response is entirely personal, but trawling the acres of media stories on impending environmental disasters suggests that giving it straight may be more effective. One recent example is the statement launching the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report The New Plastics Economy, which warns that if plastic pollution is not tackled, by 2050 our oceans are expected to contain “more plastics than fish (by weight)”. Now that is a picture to conjure with. Man eats fish, fish eats plastic, ergo man eats plastic. An outcome one can relate to, and take action.

But giving it straight also has its dangers. In some hands scary information masquerading as scientific fact can spawn veritable industries of campaign and protest. Depending on where one stands on the issue, the GMO debate could well qualify.

In the long run raising awareness of science is paramount.  Since 1987 India celebrates 28 February as National Science Day, “raising public appreciation of scientific issues for the development of the nation… science for nation building”. In the UK the alarming fall in the numbers of students taking science-related subjects in our schools and universities must give cause for concern. In an increasingly environmentally challenged world the gap between the public understanding of science and public information as it is communicated by scientists and interest groups cannot be allowed to widen.

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