Statistics That Boggle the Mind

April 2, 2010
Are you amazed by outrageous statistics, the complexity and vastness of the world and our experience in it?

luggageWhen I go away and my husband stays here, he collects the Los Angeles Times so I can go through them on my return. That’s when I greatly appreciate the journalism style of giving informative titles and subtitles and then presenting the most important information at the beginning of an article. That allows me to go through nine days of several sections as quickly as I can to catch up on the news I missed.

Therefore, when I saw a short article from the “Late Briefing” page from March 23, I was excited to see the title “Airlines improve luggage handling.” Great, I thought, it’s about time! As I read the paragraph, I was thrilled to learn that:

Airlines mishandled 24% fewer bags last year as airports upgraded luggage-processing equipment and passengers either traveled lighter or carried their bags aboard to avoid fees.

The next paragraph was the kicker!

The number of checked bags that were late, misdirected, damaged or lost fell by 7.8 million to 25 million in 2009, SITA, the world’s largest provider of airline computer applications said in a statement.

Do you see what that means? 7,800,000 million bags ended up where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there that would not have be handled correctly if improvements hadn’t been made (or people hadn’t kept their bags with them on the plane). HOWEVER, that still means that O-N-L-Y 25,000,000 (all those zeros makes that 25 million in case you missed it) were late, misdirected, damaged or lost. Let’s hope these beautiful pieces of luggage from aren’t in that pile.

Incidentally, the paper did say that, “The single most important thing that passengers can do to avoid their bag being mishandled is to leave sufficient time between connecting flights.” And how often are passengers told there will be plenty of time between flights?

In any case, this is what I call a statistic that boggles the mind.

I had assumed that a 24% improvement would equal something like 25 thousand bags that had not been handled correctly. It’s a big world and some bags are likely to get lost in the shuffle. But I have a hard time picturing 25 million. It’s a little like trying to get my mind around a statement by CNN on Oct. 15, 2009, that in the third quarter last year 937,840 homes received a foreclosure letter. That sounds like an awfully lot of homes.

Guess that’s why I love these kinds of statistics. They give me a perspective on the vastness of life in all its complexity, which is why I like to read the TIME magazine section of “Numbers.” The March 15, 2010, issue pointed out that 1.26 microseconds is the “time that each day has been shortened as a result of Chile’s earthquake, which shifted the earth’s axis about 3 inches.”

According to the March 8 issue of TIME, there were 4.6 billion worldwide cell-phone users at the end of 2009, compared with 2 billion in 2002. Can you imagine how many cell phones that is, let alone how many people? What percentage of people have cellphones? You have to figure that out on the fly because if you go to Worldometers, World Statistics Updated in Real Time, the number of people on the earth was 6,835,736,195 when I first checked the page and when I went back there less than a minute later it was 6,835,736,507. How can you imagine those kinds of numbers? They are so huge, and growing by the second.

If you want an even more staggering number, why not click on the Worldometers link in the paragraph above and see how many more people have been added to the world since I visited?

One person that does a good job of explaining big numbers and complex ideas is Bill Bryson in his wonderful book A Short History of Nearly Everything. Somehow he is able to reduce massive figures to understandable ideas with clever analogies. It is because of his explanation of our utterly vast universe that I am convinced of the extremely unlikely possibility of flying saucers, but that’s another story.

The Ask Yourself Questions Club questions I want you to ask yourself today deal with statistics that you can’t get your mind around without resorting to an analogy. For example, to imagine the effect of 25,000,000 pieces of luggage that didn’t end up where or when they should, I wondered what percentage of passengers that would affect. Or if you set the bags on a highway next to one another, how many miles would they cover? If you did that with 4.6 billion cell phones, how far would that be?

All of this talk of trying to understand statistics gave me the idea for the following topics to consider.


  • What are the most outrageous statistic I have come across lately?
  • How would I explain that statistic in such a way that it would be more understandable?
  • Who does the best job of explaining statistics so I can understand them? [For me the answer is Bill Bryson in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything

4 thoughts on “Statistics That Boggle the Mind

  1. I assume you’ve gotten an answer to your some of your questions, but here’s at least a couple of answers: The luggage “misdirected” EVERY DAY, if laid end-to-end would probably stretch from LA to Denver. (About 850 miles as the plane flies.) The cell phones would be about equal to a generous two-lane road that would circle the earth. And if all those cell phones were in use, think about the number accidents there would be!


    1. Great! My comment feature is working on this new blog.

      Thanks for the statistics. If you multiplied the luggage misdirected every day to the number misdirected for a year, just imagine how far around the earth that would be (850 miles times 365 days a year)! That is 301,250 miles, or based on the number of miles around the earth at the circumference, the luggage would cover more than 12 times the distance at the equator.



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