For a long time now, I’ve been writing journal articles and blog posts about large number innumeracy. A basic take-away from my research has been that untrained members of the general population have a wide range of skills for dealing with large numbers. Basically, people are very competent at arithmetic up to about 1,000; they can order the basic scale words thousand, million, billion, and trillion, and can generally even write them correctly. What people struggle to do is to relate across orders of magnitude. In one study, for instance, 65 of 67 college undergraduates represented one thousand, one million, and one billion correctly as numerals, even as one third of them made huge errors estimating their relative magnitudes. This week, a popular internet meme has made my point beautifully.
As Snopes notes, 1.3 Billion is 13×10^8, while 300 million is 3×10^8, so this is $4.33 per person, not $4.33 million (shameless plug: you can see this nicely rendered using our Graspable Math app). As you can see, people who buy this are doing the basic arithmetic just fine, but are off by a factor of 1 million–they just don’t know how to relate the scale words, even though they know how many zeros. Of course, people may really not believe it–but our data is consistent with the idea that many people would.
Apparently, this has come up before. Again from Snopes: