It’s true. From one evening’s quasi-targeted engagement, I increased my Twitter followers by 300%. That’s a big shiny number!

Less shiny is the context.

Followers have grown from 2 to 8.

I recently read Bernard Keane and Helen Razer’s most excellent book, A Short History of Stupid, where I was introduced to the term ‘political arithmetic’, now commonly referred to as ‘statistics’.

Numbers without context are nonsense. Activity X (e.g. gerbil incentivising) increases your risk of heart disease by 100%. That’s right, from 1 in 1,000,000,000 to 2 in 1,000,000,000. This new policy will cost the economy 3 billion┬áby 2050.

That’s a very large number. Everybody freak out now! (I’m seeing a Tom Jones and George Clinton duet with that as the chorus…)

Besides the actual dodgy modelling used for a lot of this political arithmetic, the simple fact that humans are not very good at understanding large numbers, generally, contributes to the emotive reaction people have when confronted with pseudo-science like this. We’re pretty good at recognising the difference between groups of up to about 3, maybe 4 if we’re having a good day, but beyond that, it’s all big numbers. (Alex Bellos’s Alex’s Adventures in Numberland explains this much better than I can here…)

Getting to the crux of the biscuit…

When writing content, if your numbers aren’t complete codswallop, take the time to explain the methodology behind them. (This may be through a link to another page…) Being transparent and objective will increase the credibility of your content, and if the numbers you’re pointing at are genuine, their significance will be apparent, without the hyperbole.