As someone with ADD (ADHD), numbers don't really mean that much to me. Today's Dow, tomorrow's poll numbers, and the historic average temperature in New York in September are not part of my daily life. Apparently, I'm the exception: the media serves up and Americans consume ever greater amounts of such data daily. All this information seems terribly precise, but it doesn't do anything to shed light on the truly pressing issues of the day. Often, it's just plain wrong. And while there's plenty of blame to go around for this unfortunate state of affairs, I can only conclude that the root of it lies in baseball.
Baseball is a boring game consisting of long stretches of inactivity punctuated with periodic bursts of activity, but the people who run the sport are anything but stupid. Generations ago, they began to entertain the fans with statistics. Ever since, people who couldn't stomach algebra have been memorizing hitting averages, RBI's and all other manners of baseball trivia. Apply such information liberally, and every fan can be an expert capable of making the obscure into something grand, only to be forgotten at the beginning of the next play.
This strategy turns out to be so effective that it has inspired sports well beyond the American pastime. Football, basketball, hockey, golf, badminton, soccer, beach volleyball and Dixie Cup hurling have all supplemented their fans' experience with the addition of facts, figures, statistics, correlation and other mathematical sounding jargon. Pass all this through an expert commentator with a junior college education, and it seems exact enough for a satellite launch.
Had this inane obsession confined itself to the world of snapping towels, I'd have no cause for complaint. But the disease has spread to consequential realms that affect our lives in important ways. Calling elections and picking stocks - no doubt using techniques pioneered to fill time between horse races - have wrapped themselves in the highly dubious science of statistics and quantitative reporting. Eighteen months ago, for example, I could have drowned you in a sea of data proving that Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were, and would continue to be, amongst the most profitable, stable and reliable of investment banks. Today, that information is less than worthless.
Equally as deadly is what we're asked to believe in the name of the quasi-science of political polling. I'll grant that meaningless surveys are cheaper than good journalism; they are, however, of no more significance than baseball stats. So you'll pardon me for not tracking with breathless anticipation the percentage of Caucasian women between the ages of 53 and 57 living in swing states who like lipstick but not pit bulls or pigs and who have thought about voting about McCain because he enjoys the company of people from Alaska. It's today's news, but it will be forgotten tomorrow.
There are, however, some very important numbers that are ignored despite their simple and obvious significance. The Department of Defense confirms that 4,155 American soldiers have died in Iraq. (You'll find a DoD press release for every American soldier on iCasulaties.org.) That number exists despite the fact that fact that Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction or anything to do with 9/11; and it shouldn't make anyone feel better that the region is far less stable now than it was prior to the invasion. All it means is that over four thousand families lost relatives for reasons having nothing to do with the war's justification. To complete this equation, consider that that the war's original estimate of $50 billion was low by a factor of 20x: the actual cost of the war is probably closer to $1 trillion (one thousand billion dollars). That's money that didn't go into education, health care or energy independence.
So let's leave the meaningless statistics to the boys of summer. Now that it's fall, we should focus instead on numbers with meaning.