Putting numbers into perspective

In the last couple of days a number of news outlets have reported the findings of the World Health Organization concerning the incidence of skin cancer across the globe. Routers, for instance, opened its article  thus:

As many as 60,000 people a year die from too much sun, mostly from malignant skin cancer, the World Health Organization reported on Wednesday.

The phrase 'as many as 60,000' creates the impression that we are somehow dealing with a large number. In fact, the tenor of the article makes it almost sound we are on the verge of a nascent epidemic.

But the reality is completely different. As a percentage of the world population, the 60,000 comes to 0.00092 %. In other words, less than one ten thousandth of one percent of the world's people dies of skin cancer in a given year. This is an extremely low proportion indeed.

To gain a sense of comparison, there are an estimated 1.7 million road fatalities worldwide. To put it differently, you are more than 20 times more likely to perish in a car—related accident than to die of skin cancer. Yet you would not get that impression from reading the wires reporting the WHO findings.

The failure to supply perspective is a common feature of today's journalism and the reason why it so easily stirs up hysterias. Iraq is a case in point with reporters trying to create the impression that the death tool is exceedingly great. The truth, however, is different. It may come as a surprise to many, but the rate of casualties in Iraq is the lowest of any war we have been engaged in. During WWII, for example, we lost on average more than twice as many people every month as we have lost during the last four years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. It is also important to keep in mind that proportionally the loss was much greater since the population of America then was about half of what it is today.

And although these figures do not lessen the immense pain and tragedy that the loss of every life entails, they do expose the disingenuousness of those who so cynically manipulate numbers in the service of their devious agendas.

Vasko Kohlmayer  7 28 06

In the last couple of days a number of news outlets have reported the findings of the World Health Organization concerning the incidence of skin cancer across the globe. Routers, for instance, opened its article  thus:

As many as 60,000 people a year die from too much sun, mostly from malignant skin cancer, the World Health Organization reported on Wednesday.

The phrase 'as many as 60,000' creates the impression that we are somehow dealing with a large number. In fact, the tenor of the article makes it almost sound we are on the verge of a nascent epidemic.

But the reality is completely different. As a percentage of the world population, the 60,000 comes to 0.00092 %. In other words, less than one ten thousandth of one percent of the world's people dies of skin cancer in a given year. This is an extremely low proportion indeed.

To gain a sense of comparison, there are an estimated 1.7 million road fatalities worldwide. To put it differently, you are more than 20 times more likely to perish in a car—related accident than to die of skin cancer. Yet you would not get that impression from reading the wires reporting the WHO findings.

The failure to supply perspective is a common feature of today's journalism and the reason why it so easily stirs up hysterias. Iraq is a case in point with reporters trying to create the impression that the death tool is exceedingly great. The truth, however, is different. It may come as a surprise to many, but the rate of casualties in Iraq is the lowest of any war we have been engaged in. During WWII, for example, we lost on average more than twice as many people every month as we have lost during the last four years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. It is also important to keep in mind that proportionally the loss was much greater since the population of America then was about half of what it is today.

And although these figures do not lessen the immense pain and tragedy that the loss of every life entails, they do expose the disingenuousness of those who so cynically manipulate numbers in the service of their devious agendas.

Vasko Kohlmayer  7 28 06