Millions, Billions, Trillions: How to Make Sense of Numbers in the News

National discussions of crucial importance to ordinary citizens – such as funding for scientific and medical research, bailouts of financial institutions and the current Republican tax proposals – inevitably involve dollar figures in the millions, billions and trillions. Unfortunately, math anxiety is widespread even among intelligent, highly educated people. Complicating the issue further, citizens emotionally undeterred by billions and trillions are nonetheless likely to be ill-equipped for meaningful analysis because most people don’t correctly intuit large numbers. Happily, anyone who can understand tens, hundreds and thousands can develop habits and skills to accurately navigate millions, billions and trillions. Stay with me, especially if you’re math-averse: I’ll show you how to use school arithmetic, common knowledge and a little imagination to train your emotional sense for the large numbers shaping our daily lives. Estimates and Analogies Unlike Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, scientists and mathematicians are not exacting mental calculators, but habitual …

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