Small Data: Why so many elephants?

An elephant is being led onto some scales to be weighed Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 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.

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.

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