Right numbers can lead to wrong answers

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I was reading in the sports pages the other day that one football team was a five-and-a-half point favorite. Now, just stop to think about that for a moment: five-and one-half points. How in the world do you score half a point in football? Maybe the handicappers will allow you a half point if a field goal attempt bounces off the goal post.

Obviously, this doesn't make any sense.

But it just goes to show how often the news media get the right numbers and then reach the wrong conclusion.

Mark Twain once said, "There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact." And just what does that mean? Well, by way of example, it was reported back in 1938 that the U.S. population would never reach 140-million. It reached 150-million only 12 years later. And today it stands at something more than 320-million.

Often we read news stories that make predictions based on current estimates: So try this set of numerical fun facts: In 1977, the year Elvis Presley died, there were 170 Elvis impersonators. There are now about 85-thousand. That must mean that by the year 2020, more than one-third of the world's population will be Elvis impersonators. I can hardly wait.

When these numbers are then used with incomplete statements of fact, the results can be truly alarming, and lead us to a distorted view of the world. For instance, we read a lot about the thousands of children who are kidnapped each year. What that statement doesn't tell you is that most kidnappings of children are done by the non-custodial parent. The actual number of true child kidnappings is less than 200 each year.

So perhaps we need to go back to what economist John Maynard Keynes said in the 1930s: "It's better to be roughly right, than precisely wrong."

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Larry Burriss
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