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If you think this is about YOU, maybe you should go reconcile with your parent and work to get back your kids instead of continuing to be a jerk. If you think I am you, or similar to you, welcome! :-)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Facts & Figures & A Grain Of Salt

North Americans, we live in a land of big numbers! The population of the United States is approximately 306,000,000. Canada boasts an approximate residency of 33,200,000. Mexico fills its land mass with about 110,000,000 people.

It is no surprise, then, when somebody tells us that 3,000,000 or so people have a disease, or a condition, or are doing something, we panic. Three million is a lot of people, after all! I certainly wouldn't want to invite 3 million of my nearest and dearest friends to supper some evening, unless perhaps I was using my suburb and two neighboring suburbs to build the table.

Let's put numbers in perspective. As many as it might be, 3 million residents in the US and 3 million residents in Mexico and 3 million residents in Canada might be people, but we are talking apples and oranges as far as comparisons.

Three million Americans (because calling them "United Statians" is klutzy) means devoting space to approximately 1% of the population, just 600,000 short. On the other hand, three million Mexicans (living in Mexico, this is not about illegal immigration) would mean a little less than 3% of the population. When Canadians talk about 3 million people, they are serious, because the population of Canada is NINE times less than the United States, and the percentage comes out to about 9%.

What's this got to do with the price of Tea in Beijing?

The Media reports facts and figures thrown at the average person at an alarming rate. Our respective governments are quick to quote figures, especially when they wants its citizenry to support or not support an action or a bill, again in a rapid fire fashion. All that information can create anxiety, even depression that perhaps the world is going to Hell in a hand basket, and very quickly, too.

I once conducted a totally unscientific experiment. I first listened to two hours of Fox News in the background of my home, and recorded my impressions. I take a conservative to libertarian approach to life, so a lot of Fox's content does not cause me angst. However, the constant bing-bang of factoids, or doom and gloom, did have an effect on my mood.

The next day, I listened to two hours of CNN as my white noise. Here, the angst became apparent within ten minutes of the listening period.

The third day, I listened to Fox in one room and CNN in the other as I wandered the house, doing my usual. The angst was reduced, and I think I brought new meaning to the term Fair and Balanced. I still got agitated, and I still became depressed.it was only on the fourth day, when I left Style in one room and Watercolor Jazz in the other, that I achieved a calming effect.

The big clue in this is my group of subjects- ONE, UNO, EINS, UNE. This was just little old me. I didn't even have a control group.

I'm not saying we should live in a Care Bears world, where cookies rain from the sky and everybody is happy. I'm not saying the world does not have its problems, because it does. I'm not even saying we shouldn't listen to the news of whatever stripe we choose.

But we need to pay attention to what we hear. The young ones are just as guilty of this as the middle aged and the seniors. We don't pay attention to what we hear and read. We don't analyze. We don't cogitate. We hear, and we react. Too often our reaction is fear.

Long before I completed the military's journalism course, and some time before I explored high school journalism with 3,999 of my closest friends and fellow inmates, Sister Mary Christine advised our fourth grade class of the four Ws and one H. They are:
  • WHO. Just who said or did this?
  • WHAT? What exactly was said or done?
  • WHEN? Was it yesterday? Last week? In the 3rd century BC?
  • WHERE? In Canada? Mexico? Bahrain? Iraq? China? The United Center?
  • HOW? With a crowbar? With a doctor? Through a straw? Using a needle?

We were told that WHY was not sufficiently impartial, and all news reports had to be impartial. If colored our news with why, then we had an editorial.

I urge you to apply those four Ws and one H every time you hear what is presented to you as fact. Perhaps it is fact, but perhaps it is also distorted fact. I challenge you to restore that distorted fact to its original shape. Put it in context. Ask yourself a fifth W, WHY, as in, "Why would somebody want me to believe what they are telling me, why would the teller distort my perception?"

As an added bonus, I am giving you a link to a calculator that not only translates easily percentages into whole numbers, but clarifies ratios into percentages.

To give you some practice, I'll link you with some news articles and factoids, and see if you can tell me why things are not as they might appear, or we are being led to appear.

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