The Power of Numbers

Richard - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Entered on August 31, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: question

The belief in honesty is a guiding principal that has shaped my life. Yet, how do you fight the natural tendency to deny. I find the power of numbers to be very useful. I believe in the power of numbers to keep you honest and to tell a story. Here are some examples.

To keep you honest.

1] If you have said to yourself “I did not gain weight.” Or “I am not overweight.” Look at the scale–it does not lie. You will get a more honest picture if you calculate your Body Mass Index or your percent body fat. Calculators can be found on the internet.

2] If you start an exercise routine, keeping track of your progress will keep you honest, inspire you to work harder, and help prevent you from injuring yourself. Which I have done far too often.

3] If you think you are generous, calculate the percent of your take home pay given to charities.

To tell a story.

There are two things about numbers that are needed to give a full picture: size and ratio.

1] The Pennsylvania legislature was praised for passing a record increase for the basic subsidy to schools–$275 million. “The biggest boost ever to K-12 funding.” That is the size, the ratio is that this amounts to $138 per student or enough to buy each student one textbook.

2] People often pass up a penny on the floor as not worth the effort to pick it up. That is the size. If it takes two seconds to pick it up you are making $18 an hour. That is the ratio.

3] You hear on the news accusations of ethnic cleansing by the South Ossetia militias who attacked Georgian villages in South Ossetia. According to Human Rights watch numerous houses in four villages had been burnt down on August 12, 2008.

The question to ask is “How widespread are these attacks?” Specifically, “What percent of the Georgian villages were attacked?” As there are 42 Georgian villages total, this amounts to at most 10% of the Georgian villages. It is clear that cataloging on one day by one group of observers is far from the complete picture. It should also be clear that accusations of ethnic cleansing is speculative at best.

4] Girls’ High in Philadelphia recycled 18,000 lb paper last year.

This sounds like a lot, is it? In 2003 the US used 748 lb of paper per person. Girls’ High recycled 17 lbs per person or 2% of the US average usage. So, 18,000 lb a year may be large compared to other schools of similar size but small compared to the problem.