Monday, July 25, 2005

I hate numbers

I actually love numbers, but I hate the way they scale, and I hate the way we use them today.

We constantly hear about how big the national debt is, how many people die per minute from different diseases, how much oil we're burning, and so on.

But the fact is, anything you tell us which scales with population is going to seem immense once you multiply it out. MSN in Australia tells me the average person passes a liter and a half of gas a day. There are almost 300 million people in the US, so each day America releases almost 120 million gallons of flatulance.

That's a lot of stink, by the way.

"US OIL DEMAND, 2004: Over 20 million barrels per day" - from this site. They further tell me that this is about 777 million gallons. The site tries to be helpful as it goes on telling me how deep that much oil would be covering a football field, how many times those barrels would circle the earth, etc. And trust me, that's cool to know. I love having the visual.

But it doesn't mean anything to me. Is it normal for a nation to consume 6 times as much oil as it outputs in ass-gas? What are the ass-gas to oil-consumption ratios for other nations? What do we get in exchange for our oil usage? How much of it is used in cars driven by one person and how much is used in transporting food from the rural areas into the cities? What are the facts behind the numbers?

I'm not saying we aren't being grossly irresponsible in our oil consumption. But tell me about that, don't just give me a number and hope I run away screaming. You have to give me some context.

This same fact applies to the people who try and tell me how many people starve to death each minute. I love this site which tells me that "One person every other second needlessly dies." Now that's a truly useless number, designed simply to scare me. How many people actually die every second? How many are "needful" deaths? How many people are needlessly born (not a very nice thought, I know)?

They further tell me that 578 species go extinct each day, which seems to contrast with Wikipedia's statement of 784 documented extinctions in the past 500 years. This further contrasts with Sierra Legal Defense's estimate of 50 to 75 species per day being eradicated, and SaveTheRainforest's "conservative" estimate of 25 per day. This site tells me (again, "conservatively") that 50 to 150 species are wiped out each day in the tropics alone.

This is even worse than "scare me with big numbers." It's "scare me with completely made up numbers." Do these assholes even know what "conservatively" means when estimating something?

I hate it. It's gotten to the point where I feel no emotional impact from numbers any more. With every statistic I hear, I first question whether they're even right, and then question what it's supposed to tell me. In the end I'm left with one impression: people are much more interested in making me terrified than they are in educating me, and I resent that.

Let me decide whether I should be scared shitless or not, ok?

No comments: