Fooling People with Numbers. How Innumeracy Leads to Poor Decision Making.

by Pitt Griffin on September 3, 2018 · 0 comments

in Trump presidency

Do you know the difference between a million and a billion? Can you envision it? Not sure? Then picture this. Imagine you were given a dollar every second. After an hour you would have $3,600. After a day $86,400. And in 11 ½ days, you would have a $1 million. But to get to a $1 billion you would have to wait for over 31 years.

And to equal Jeff Bezos in net worth, you would have to live another 4,969 years.

Failure to understand relative numbers is a feature of every federal budget debate. Trump canceled a 2.1% raise for federal civilian employees on the grounds that a deteriorating deficit mandated it. However, the savings represent just 1/40th of the $1 trillion added to the deficit generated by the GOP’s tax cuts.

Fiscal conservatives argue that fiscal probity mandates deep cuts in federal funding for agencies like National Endowment of the Arts — but the NEA accounts for 4/1000ths of 1% of the federal budget. I’m sure that there are conservatives who are aware they are pushing a cynical political agenda — but I suspect the majority of the zealots really think these cuts would actually make a difference.

But misunderstanding relative values isn’t limited to money. Trump’s zealots are convinced undocumented aliens are a leading source of crime. Events like Mollie Tibbetts’ murder reinforce their belief. But her death actually proves the opposite. It illuminates how extremely rare killings by immigrants are.

Mollie was murdered 6 weeks ago and in the time since how many other killings have been blamed on undocumented aliens? Even the Tibbetts family has demanded that xenophobes stop vilifying immigrants.

Islamic terrorism is another existential threat to the average right-winger. But how many Americans are killed by ISIS or their fellow travelers? Exactly. Homegrown white supremacists are the terrorists you have to worry about — and even they are unproductive.

Other things that are statistically negligible killers of Americans are sharks, bears, snakes, spiders, and crocodiles. The animal you do have to worry about is a deer. Striking one – or swerving off the road to avoid them – kills 200 Americans a year. But even that is a drop in the fatality bucket

The number one killer of Americans is disease. Heart disease, cancer, and respiratory illness account for over 50% of deaths — 1,353,148 in 2014. But that reality is not reflected in the allocation of federal resources. The budget of Department of Homeland Security is $84 billion. While the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control’s combined appropriation is $43 billion.

Social issues are not immune from faulty thinking. Conservatives claim that their anti-abortion campaign is in part to spare women the risk of the procedure. But women are 14 times more likely to die giving birth than they are having an abortion. But this false narrative has led to women’s health clinics being saddled with mandates and regulations that oral/maxillofacial surgeons and even some cosmetic surgeons are not required to follow.

Gun zealots react to gun regulation by bleating that more people are killed in car accidents. But it is a false comparison. First, that doesn’t include gun suicides. And secondly, most guns are rarely used — most cars are frequently driven. About 1/3 of households have a gun — 88% of households have a car. And people who don’t own cars frequently ride in one. The purpose of a gun is to kill things — a car’s role is to get people from A to B.

By any metric cars are far safer than guns.

One of today’s best known psychological afflictions is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which convinces people, who know very little, to think they know a lot. Today you see examples of it everywhere. Its most famous ‘victim’ lies hourly on Twitter, making up statistics and repeating the fantasies he hears on Fox News.

Congress is littered with members who think they know how to run an economy and design tax policy despite having no education or experience in economics.

People often shun facts and turn to anecdotes to support their arguments. But a story of how your friend’s sister died having her appendix removed sheds no light on the relative risk of the procedure.

And everyone knows that guy who is an expert on everything even though his chief skill seems to be talking loudly.

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