Thursday, 17 September 2015

Lies, damned lies and statistics

My brother and I were debate partners in high school in Athens, Greece. We attended the American Community Schools (ACS) of Athens from 1995 to 1998 and participated in various debate tournaments in and outside of Greece. Both of us more cerebral than anything else, debate, the chess club, the poetry club and other clubs were our after school activities. 

We were pretty good as a team but we were also on non-speaking terms with each other for most our time in high school but that's another story.

During a tournament that included debate, oratory, drama and group discussion around the theme of climate change, we realised one of the strongest teams we were competing with kept flinging around the phrase "lies, damned lies and statistics." This was very frustrating because our school had been preparing for a number of months in the library. Our debate coach who was also our chemistry teacher did a great job mentoring and guiding us. So, you can imagine our dumb founded frustration at this team who would elegantly and wittily skirt around our facts and figures with a flamboyant style. And the judges and audience loved them. Their ring leader was this guy who looked like a chipmunk and, was especially a charming and mesmerising speaker. He had our most talented speaker, Demetri Spanos, kind of stumped. 

So, talking of statistics, many of us are familiar with certain famous statistics. We have grown up with them just as we have with proverbs and puns. 

Let's see if I can list some of them:

1) The size of a football field of precious Amazon rainforest is disappearing every day (this I learned in 7th grade, back in 1991). 
2) Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust (I don't even remember when I first learned or read it, was probably taught it in history class or maybe it was a movie). 
3) There are 9 planets in our solar system (before they demoted Pluto and then promoted Pluto again). I remember learning this in 4th grade at the American School of Bucharest and our teacher made it easy on how to remember the name of the planets by remembering the sentence, 'I don't like soggy waffles.' No, wait that is to remember North, South, East and West. 
4) More bombs and napalm were dropped on Vietnam than in Europe in World War 2. This is not a number per se but a comparison and I think I learned this staggering fact in my first year of university at QMW back in 1998. It was Chomsky, I'm sure. 
5) There are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. Again, this is not a number but comparison of numbers and, I don't think I knew this until I was an adolescent. I cannot quite remember where I first learned this. This can be interpreted conveniently for folks on both sides of the two-nation theory divide. 
6) About a million folks were slaughtered in communal riots and horrific violence during the Partition. I think I always knew this and again, this number can be conveniently interpreted how ever you want it. You can blame either main group. 
7) More American soldiers died in the American Civil War than any other war since. This we were taught in 9th grade American history. The Civil War period followed by Reconstruction and Civil Rights movement really are a fascinating part of American history.
8) Anything from 10 to 20 million Africans were taken as slaves in the trans Atlantic slave trade. I don't remember learning this exact figure in high school per se but from articles I read later on as an adult. We definitely learned about the slave trade and it was interesting we learned about it in an American Christian school in Dakar, Senegal. Visiting the slave castles in Goree Island really affected me as a teenager. I was deeply affected by it. My friend (Maria Guzman) and I even did a little skit about it for history class, where I was a slave and she was a slave trader. 
9) About 4,000 Jews did not come to work on 9-11. This is a conspiracy theory but it's quite popular, mainly amongst Muslims. 
10) For every USD $ 100 worth of aid, hardly a dollar reaches the ground. This tid bit kind of permeated my consciousness when I started working with UN back in 2002. I don't remember where I heard it first, but it was said many times by cynical types. And, after some time, it is easy to see that most of the money going to poor countries for fancy programmes and projects is sucked into over heads, salaries, expensive vehicles, and DSA. 
11) The Land Cruisers that UN types drive around in cost at least USD $ 50,000.
12) A typical well project that aid folks like to build as part of their WATSAN projects costs USD $ 3,000 (give or take).  
13) The minimum monthly salary in Liberia is USD $ 70.00 or USD $ 75.00. The security guards which are employed by offices and residences of UN folks and NGOs are usually guarded by security guards who make as little as US $ 75 / month.  
14) The Iraq War cost the Americans a trillion dollars and about 1 million Iraqis lost their lives. 
15)  There are more private swimming pools in South Africa than in the United States. I think I read this in Pale Native by Max du Preez.   
16) A Liberian Senator makes USD $ 25,000 per month and more in benefits. This figure has been floating around and used for dramatic dinner party conversations: "Can Liberia afford to pay so much to is senators, being a dirt poor country?"
 17) China lifted about 300 million people out of poverty. Compare this with Europe's development trajectory. This bit of knowledge was picked up during my master's study at SOAS.
 18) The 2012 American Presidential elections cost about a billion dollars. Democracy is expensive!
19) Childbirth is the number one killer for women.  
20) One in four African American males will go to prison. 
21) The US has the highest prison population in the developed world.
22) There are about 2 or 3 million heroin addicts in Pakistan. This stat has been part of my consciousness for the longest time. I don't know where I picked it up from. It's depressing to say the least. 
23) Roughly 1000 women are killed in Pakistan in "honour killings" every year. Well into my 30s, I started taking more of an interest in women's right and the poor plight of women in my own country. I think I picked up this figure last year when I was in Paksitan at length. I was particularly horrified and grief stricken at learning about the pregnant woman who got stoned to death by her family in front of a high court in Lahore, in broad day light.  Wonder if this figure is taught in schools in Pakistan?
24) The number of drone attacks in Pakistan increased during Obama's administration! 
What statistics do you remember from school and later on as an adult?

1 comment:

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