ben vandgrift · on living the dream

Lies, Damn Lies, And Statistics

This type of things pisses me off. Forget for the moment that it's designed to make us feel either lucky or guilty, to make us feel pity for the less fortunate while we congratulate ourselves on our good fortune–in short, it's sentimental tripe. But what actually pisses me off is the way it does all this masquerading as 'fact'.

For starters, those numbers are WORLD numbers, not LOCALIZED values. I.e., if you're reading this, the data hasn't been normalized in any way to your part of the world. Those numbers and percentages in the United States wouldn't be as dramatic, and pared down to your state, or even city, wouldn't keep your attention as more than a statistic, if it weren't for the pretty typography.

We happen to live in a country that values everybody having a roof over their head and has the resources to make this happen the overwhelming majority of the time. Does that make us lucky? Absolutely. Does it mean it was luck all the day down? No–throughout our history we've made choices to ensure that we're in the nice comfy situation we're in.

(Yes, I understand that there's a wide disparity in wealth distribution, and it's something that's worth correcting. Even so, the poorest Americans still have access to clean food and water, capable medical care, technology that borders on the magical, and a country free of civil strife.)

The stats nerd in me also feels compelled to point out that no real measures were given here: what does it mean to have 'more health than illness'? That suggests the numbers are aggregated by nation and not individual.

In short, this is a 'tug on the heartstrings', presented as data. (If you include percentages, you're subject to scrutiny.)

Breaking It Down

The world's population will reach 7 billion ( 7,000,000,000 people ) by October 30. The United States has 312,000,000 people in it. These are important numbers and can provide a real sense of scale. So let's break this poster down into real numbers:

If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof and a place to sleep, you are among an elite group of 1,750,000,000 people (1.75 billion people). Incidentally, if that's all you have, then that many people are better off than you are.

Next, apparently if you have some savings, you are among the top 560,000,000 people in the world, presumably by net worth. That's ~180% of the population of the United States. I don't know what the cutoff here was–maybe no debt? Possibly an income greater than liabilities? I found this measure the hardest to swallow, because I have no idea what it's really measuring. Incidentally, while I have a savings account, a little equity in the condo, and enough money in the bank to be 'comfortable' day to day, I also have ~$110,000 in debts. Not sure where I fall on this one.

I don't really know what having 'more health than illness' measures, but the poster suggests that one million ( 1,000,000 ) people will die this week. That million people makes up 0.0142% of the world's population. One hundred forty-two ten-thousandths of a percent of death rate, per week, yielding ~143,000 people per day. To give you a sense of scale, 16,370,000 people watched Miami play the Jets last Monday – and that's just one game.

Incidentally, in the week where those million people are dying, ~2,578,000 children will be born, giving us an overall population growth rate of ~1.1%.

War, imprisonment, torture, or starvation. That's an OR, not an AND. From a statistics POV, that means the aggregator has added up a bunch of insignificant numbers to get a big punchy one. In this case, 500 million, or 14% of the world's population.

To turn that one around, that means 6.5 _billion_ people, or 86% of the world's population, have never known war, imprisonment, torture, or starvation. That's awesome.

Finally, "If you can read this message, you are more fortunate than the 3 billion people …"

There are a number of problems here. First, the message is digital, therefore unreadable by anyone without access to a computer. Second, it's in English, so it's untranslatable to anyone who can't read English–the most generous estimates place the English-speaking population (as a native language or otherwise) at 1.8 billion. Third, the ~610,000,000 people under the age of ~5 of so shouldn't be expected to read, but do make up part of the world's population. I'd say, that given all of that, it's a meaningless statistic.

I don't have a problem with feel-good or feel-bad promotion. I have a real problem, however, when data is presented without context. I hope this has provided you with a sense of scale, and more so, that you'll look for that sense of scale in statistics in the future.

written: Oct 21 2011