Friday, June 23, 2006

"The Fear of All Sums"

With apologies to Tom Clancy, "The fear of all sums" is a term I came up with a while ago as a play on the title of his famous novel (and the Winston Churchill quote from which it is derived). Sorry, I don't know if someone somewhere beat me to the punch with this phrase but a quick Google search suggests not. At any rate, I use the term to describe the tendency of public figures to mindlessly cite studies, polls and statistics while giving short shrift (if any "shrift" at all) to the proper context, meaning or useful limits of the figures. Invariably it takes only a few moments of digging to find that the speaker/writer either hadn't read the report they were commenting on or, worse, was purposefully misrepresenting it. This to me represents a clear and present "fear" of the true "sums" at issue. And so a blog title was born.

Anyone who follows the news with any regularity can attest to the prevalence of this phenomenon. One can point to the pre-Iraq war reporting of Saddam Hussein’s infamous, allegedly "unaccounted for weapons of mass destruction". These were universally reported to us as if they were a factually-established quantity instead of the, at best, educated theoretical guesses they really were. The information to debunk this reporting was readily available. The mere fact that I, a simple unfrozen caveman blogger taking his first wobbly upright steps into the blogosphere, was privy to the information attests its availability. Yet our media watchdogs, with all the resources available to our largest news organizations (research teams, Lexis-Nexis and access to an armada of "experts" in every field) were unable (or was it unwilling) to report the same. The supposed global warming "debate" is another example. The fact is I could go down a long list of other egregious infractions that stand out in my mind but I think you get it. This phenomenon is not limited to the realm of the scientific or mathematical. The air is thick with it.

This will be a large part of what I'll write about here but I don't plan to dwell on that exclusively. I'll be using this space as a brain dump. Feel free join me. The opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone. I represent no particular political party, candidate, organization or, as best as I can avoid it, ideology. I try not to subscribe too closely any of the many "isms" of the world because I don't believe that man can devise any single construct that leads to the correct answer to every question. The closest I could come to catagorizing myself, if I'm to be constrained by the popular false dichotomy of "left vs right", is to say that I "lean left". But this will become clearer once I begin to post.

Well, that's it. Thank you for taking the time to visit. Y'all come back now, ya' hear?

Update: I did another Google search today and all of a sudden a dozen entries with the same title, "The Fear of All Sums" show up all over the place. I don't know how it is this didn't come up the first time I checked but it appears that an editorial with the same title showed up in the Seattle Times two days before my post (which had been written in draft form even earlier). I was not aware of the existance of this editorial, nor was I aware of the Paul Krugman article from 2002 with the same title. But I figure, if these two columnists can use the title with no apparent beefs arising out of it, so can I. Just thought I'd clear that up. Carry on.