Statistics that Broaden Our Perspective

Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
Mark Twain's Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review

The use of statistics in argumentation is often maligned. Often this is for good reason, since some very subtle sleights of hand can cause factually correct statistics to significantly misrepresent reality.

For example, there is the joke about the PR department’s reporting of the results of the annual softball game against the R&D department. After losing by a dozen runs, the company newsletter reported that the PR department had suffered a single loss that season while the R&D department had finally managed to achieve their first win of the year.

Despite the very plain dangers of the use of numbers, they are often a good way to illustrate things. Sometimes numbers, when properly used, can help put things into a whole new perspective.

Human Deaths due to War

This video about the numbers of deaths during various wars in history shows how statistics can help us understand our world a little better. Particularly with the rise of the modern media, with social media increasing the number of citizen reporters, we get a steady stream of information about who is killing who and how awful it is. This video helps to put things into perspective

Without diminishing the reality of human suffering, this video shows that things may not be as bad as we believe based on our Facebook feeds. It would be good to live in a world where no one is killing anyone. In fact, I long for that day, though I anticipate it won’t come until Christ returns.

Life is hard and injustice is real, but this visual representation of statistics helps put things into perspective. And perspective is helpful in keeping us from being overwhelmed by the horrors of the world. There are many horrors and will continue to be more, but it may be they are not nearly as pervasive as we might think.

Outrage Porn

Social media enables what has come to be known as "outrage porn." If a definition is required, outrage porn is the phenomenon where people are addicted to being upset about what someone (usually distant from them) is doing and how wrong it is.

This is what leads to people actually getting upset over the colors of a dress in a picture on the internet. It is what leads to a constant stream of angry bloggers (from the right and the left) taking the words of actors, politicians, and regular people out of context, writing about them, and starting a movement to call for the people’s demise. (Or worse yet, actually caring what some of these celebrities say and thinking it is important simply because they say it.)

Outrage porn is how we get a national debate over a boy with a science experiment clock or intentional faux bomb thingy. It doesn’t matter that none of us are in a position to know enough about the topic, we are justified in lauding the victim and crucifying the authorities or mocking the supports and justifying suspicion based on religious grounds. (This is a false dichotomy, of course, but it makes the point.)

We’ve lost perspective because of the broadening of our field of view with the narrowing of our focus. We can see the whole world through the internet, but the lens tends to be more and more biased. Often the bias is myopically focused on the present to the exclusion of the past. (After all, we can’t really trust history because it was written by the dominant culture.)

Taking a Step Back

The video and its visual representation of history (inasmuch as the statistics are reliable) help to put things into perspective by breaking through the “newness” of the newsfeed and seeing history synchronically; it sets different eras beside each other.

In this case, it reinforces the horrors of World War II. It helps me to understand the generation that lived through it a little better. It also shows me that today might not be quite as bad as I thought.

There is room for concern, but no need for despair. In that, this is a helpful video, really.