If there is one thing that categorizes politics, it’s statistics. If only because it has the drama factor.

For example, two headlines:



“World population increases by 1.8% in 2012. Trend expected to continue.”

They are, in fact, the same headline*. But the impact is not the same; and it’s not just a question of capslock. The statistical truth (it’s proven, somewhere, in a survey) is that most people are unwittingly subject to framing bias. That is: our opinion changes with the phrasing**. And I think that we also run the risk of just being bad at math.

Another classic example:

A single bacterium is place in a jar at 11 o’clock. It multiplies by splitting in two every 60 seconds (as do the offspring). The jar is completely full at midnight. At what time will the jar be half-full?

Answer: 11:59. Because all the bacteria will split and fill double the space. Although most people will answer with 11:30, because that’s halfway through the hour.

Next question: at what time will four jars not be enough to contain all the bacteria?

Answer: 12.02. Because one jar at 12:00, doubles to two jars at 12:01, doubles to four jars at 12:02. Again, the answer is usually 13:00, or 16:00, or something that applies to the time and not the rate of increase.

The above is usually used in reference to the world’s consumption of oil. Every year, we use more fossil fuels than have ever been used before in history**. But we’re not exactly discovering that many new oil fields…

And that’s just playing with statistics that are real. Because then you get the China’s Government Statistics Office.

The point: we should be more skeptical. And whenever we’re shocked by a statistical “fact”; rephrase it before forming an opinion.

*In order for a population to double in 38 years, it would be increasing at a rate of 1.8% every year.

**It’s where you get the headlines à la “We burned more oil in 2012 than in the previous 50 years COMBINED”.