Small Data: Why so many elephants?

An elephant is being led onto some scales to be weighed Presumably weighs as much as one elephant

Elephants are a popular token of scale in measurements of very large things. Why, asks Anthony Reuben.

Why do I keep hearing about elephants? Hardly any animal-related stories come across my desk. I haven't been asked to do anything about the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo and their chances of conceiving this year. Nobody has asked me to investigate the new regulations relating to grey squirrels and how their population compares with red squirrels. But I got into the office the other day to an email asking whether I believed that 20,000 elephants had been killed in Africa in 2012. It turns out that it's surprisingly difficult to count elephants, as More or Less found out last October.

Small Data

  • A series on curious numbers cropping up in the news, by stats watcher Anthony Reuben

Not long ago I was sent some research suggesting that the amount of stuff sent to landfill that could have been reused weighed the same as 90,000 elephants. I was asked recently by a statistician if the BBC could stop referring to things as being the size of Wales. I explained that without things being the height of a double-decker bus, the length of a jumbo jet, the capacity of an Olympic-sized swimming pool or Wembley Stadium, or indeed the size of Wales, news would be completely without reference points.

But I wonder if 90,000 elephants is a useful measure of weight. On the other hand, I'm not sure we have a viable alternative reference for such a big weight. Maybe we could do it in terms of the weight of Wembley Stadium, or indeed the weight of whales - or even Wales. Setting aside the fact that elephants can weigh anywhere between 2.25 and seven tons, is it a failure of the imagination or a useful comparison? Any suggestions for a new reference point for extreme weight in the news are welcome.

Follow @BBCNewsMagazine on Twitter and on Facebook

More on This Story

More from the Monitor

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • KnucklesGood or bad?

    For many it can be very satisfying to 'crack' the bones in your hand, but is it bad for you?


  • 3D model of Christ the Redeemer statueClick Watch

    Using drones to 3D map the famous Brazilian landmark Christ the Redeemer

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.