Australian Bushfire crisis shows the persuasive power of big numbers

Tony Jaques, Director of Issue Outcomes Pty Ltd, advises on issue and crisis management. He is the author of Rothstein Publishing’s upcoming book (summer 2020) addressing senior executives on how to successfully navigate crises and balance sometimes conflicting advice from lawyers and public relations or crisis management professionals.

There’s an old journalist maxim that Names Make News. But when it comes to media coverage of important public issues, it’s equally true that Numbers Make News.

During the Australian bushfire crisis it was widely reported that fire had killed over a billion animals, not including fish, frogs, bats and insects.

I have no idea if the number is accurate. But it certainly created world-wide headlines and focused attention. And it was quickly followed by a prediction that the fires would cost tourism up to $1 billion.

Many people have trouble envisaging a billion. Some aren’t even sure if a billion is a thousand million or a million million. Yet there is no doubt that memorable big numbers can drive issues, and they can be misused.

Statistics, which are easy to remember and easy to share, are an effective tool for issue managers. However issue management is sometimes impeded and distorted by statistics which may be false or misleading.

Take the claim that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day, which helped drive a global move to ban them. That number was estimated by 9-year old Milo Cress in 2011 after calls to a few manufacturers and was subsequently repeated in major news outlets around the world. Expert analysis showed his number was wildly inaccurate, but in 2018, 17-year-old Milo argued the precise number is less important than the waste. “We use far too many straws than we need to, and really almost any number is higher than it needs to be.”

Or consider the claim that 8 million metric tons of plastic waste is dumped into our oceans every year – at the rate of one garbage truck load a minute – and that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. Again very dramatic numbers, widely reported and frequently repeated, but a BBC investigation suggested this data is – at best – unproven and highly speculative.

They found that the original research was based on plastic in San Francisco Bay, extrapolated to the rest of the world. They also found that the estimate to 2025 had been projected forward by others to 2050, even though the original scientist said she was not confident her work could be used in that way.

Make no mistake. Plastic waste is a serious problem and we should reduce all forms of pollution. But should we rely on dubious numbers to make the point?

In an earlier example, Professor Joel Best at UC Berkeley referenced the claim that an estimated 150,000 American women die each year from anorexia, which was widely reported and frequently cited by activists, including Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf. He traced this number back to its source which said 150,000 young women suffer from anorexia, whereas the actual number of deaths is about 70 per year.

Best believes such “mutant statistics” are not necessarily evidence of dishonesty, but says there is also deliberate manipulation of statistics to make a problem seem as serious – and the need as urgent – as possible.

One thing we know for sure is that the more dramatic a number’s implications, the more likely it will be repeated, and that innumeracy and the media echo-chamber discourage critical thinking.

When it comes to managing important public issues, numbers have real power – especially big, dramatic numbers – but bogus or misleading statistics can weaken the issue if they are exposed and open the door to opportunistic critics.

A Parting Thought
“It’s not fake. Think of it as creative reality.”
– Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan) in Inferno