The Science Channel, the Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, and The Food Network. Great channels, and the background audio of my life. If you watch any of these channels long enough, you’ll find a show that describes how something is manufactured. It could be dental floss, fishsticks, birdseed, or snow tires. Inevitably they will tell you the number of items the factory churns out in a given year, and it is an astronomical figure. Since the average human being doesn’t usually have to grapple with such large numbers, they try to help by “putting that into perspective.” That’s where the problem starts.
Let’s say that the show is about mini-corndogs. When I think of mini-corndogs, I think of the amount I am likely to eat, which is six. Note that I said “am likely to eat.” The number I SHOULD eat is zero. The number I WANT to eat is twenty. But I’ll probably eat six. Now I learn that this facility, which makes the frozen batter dipped wieners in question, produces 2.5 million of them every year. This number exists in my head as “way more than I could eat.” But that’s not good enough for the Food Network. No, they want me to have a picture in my head, so they helpfully inform me that, if lined up end to end, they would stretch from New York City to Springfield, Massachusetts. Well thanks a lot, Food Network. Before I just had to know numbers to try to get my head around this, but now you’ve been kind enough to simplify it by throwing geography into it, too. Even if I knew where Springfield, Massachusetts was, that would just let me know that a whole lot of short things in a row is really long, which I think I could have figured out on my own.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the attempt to put the number into terms I understand. The issue here is that you are putting the number into terms that don’t make sense. Telling you how far something would go if lined up end to end is only useful if the thing you are trying to picture is something that you would usually do that with. Saying “all of the roads in the world, if lined up end to end, would circle the planet nine times,” while probably not accurate, at least conjures to mind a re-e-e-e-e-ally long road. Roads cover distance. We measure them in distance, so explaining how long a collection of roads is in terms of distance makes sense. Not so for deep fried treats. We measure food in servings. So a more useful example would be “If you were to eat corndogs for breakfast lunch and dinner every day, it would take you 350 years to finish them.” That’s a whole lot of corn dogs, and a whole lot of eating. It is a context that works. For all the good the distance analogy does for me, you might as well have just said, “If you were to place all of the corndogs end to end, it would be a colossal waste of time, energy, and corndogs.”
Lining things up isn’t the only way they help us out, though. Sometimes they stack things up and compare them to sky scrapers. Once again, there are very few things that I generally stack to achieve height. Basically just building materials, dagwood sandwiches, and turtles. Other times they get really strange, like telling me that “The amount of grape juice produced in this plant each month could fill three stadiums.” Who does this help, exactly? Unless there is a fruit-themed supervillain out there trying to work out the logistics of his latest scheme, I don’t think flooding sports venues with Welch’s is going to clarify anything for anyone. And I’m fairly certain that the nefarious Serial Grapist is no longer at large.
I don’t know if any of my readers out there are writers and researchers for these “How It’s Made” style shows, but if you are, I implore you. Inject just a drop of sanity into your comparisons. Stop lining up french fries. Stop stacking up hard drives. If you can’t come up with SOMETHING that makes sense as a visualization, at least treat us like adults. “This factory makes 5 billion batteries a year. That’s a crapload.” I think we’ll get the picture.