Playing by the numbers

There are times when we wish we had a whole gaggle of statistics at our fingertips. You simply can't start a good argument these days without them. You certainly can't finish an argument unless you have as the coup de grace a figure or two - accurate to the nearest hundredth.

The trouble is, whose statistics do we believe? Anybody, it seems, can prove just about anything by the most unimpeachable data.

We were walking in the July sunshine with our favorite statisticians, Tweedledigit and Tweedledecimal, discussing, among other matters, acid rain. Tweedledigit said with all the authority you could ask for: ''It's going to cost the customer an increase of up to 50 percent in electric rates to clean up acid rain pollution.''

''That's all just utility company propaganda!'' Tweedledecimal snorted. ''The environmentalists are projecting a 20 percent increase - tops. It's got to be done in any case. It's not just the drinking water. Forests are losing up to 65 percent of their spruce and 27 percent of their white birch. . . .''

''I don't know where you get your figures,'' Twee-dledigit fumed. ''My sources tell me 31 percent of that forest damage is due to drought.''

We hastily changed the subject to the Pentagon budget.

''What budget?'' cried Tweedledecimal. ''Did you see where the Navy spent $45 ,968 building a kennel for four dogs who sniff out drugs and explosives?''

''The Navy has retired 22 ships, saving $249 million,'' Tweedledigit, a Navy veteran, replied with dignity.

''Sure,'' Tweedledecimal sneered. ''So they could build six new ships for $4. 4 billion.''

We hastily changed the subject to education.

''Oh boy!'' said Tweedledigit. 'Don't get me started on this tuition tax break. If Congress ever acts on the Supreme Court ruling, we'll be funding more money to the private schools per student than to the public schools.''

''That's hysterical,'' sputtered Tweedledecimal. ''My analysts tell me that the credit, if made law, could save the American taxpayers more than $13 million.''

We hastily changed the subject to the economy - nothing but good news there. Tweedledigit agreed. 'The economy rose 6.6 percent in the second quarter,'' he announced. ''Home sales were up 4.3 percent in May.''

''We're just refilling inventories,'' Tweedledecimal argued. ''The real growth rate was probably more like 2.5 percent. And just wait until rising interest rates hit those home mortgages!''

We thought a moment, then asked: ''If we change the subject to war and peace, will you forget the stats. and get down to the real issue?''

For once, Tweedledigit and Tweedledecimal concurred. ''No,'' they thundered. ''The only way to talk about war and peace is by the numbers. How many nuclear warheads constitute an adequate deterrent? How many casualties are acceptable? It's all in the figures, don't you see?''

As we left them, Tweedledigit was observing, if we heard correctly, that Americans spend more money on their dogs - or was it their cats? - than they do on the elderly. Meanwhile, Tweedledecimal was contending that if a 15 percent tax were levied on lipstick and rouge, the social security system would be out of the red (no pun intended) by 1993.

We shouted over one shoulder: ''Tolstoy wrote about war and peace without burying the moral question under statistics. Milton did the same with freedom of speech. Thinkers don't substitute a data bank for ideas.''

''According to the latest polls, 37.6 percent of all Americans never heard of Tolstoy or Milton,'' Tweedledigit shouted back.

But the last voice we heard belonged to Tweedledecimal. ''Make that 41.3 percent,'' he cried.

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