When Numeracy Misleads
By David Henderson
Are you indifferent as to whether Oskar Schindler lived?
In every course I teach, I do about a 45-minute segment on numeracy. Numeracy is one of the things I find lacking in people who fall for a lot of politicians’ nonsense and reporters’ nonsense and so I try to combat it. I draw on the book, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, by mathematician John Allen Paulos, some of my own stories and examples, “Risk and Safety” by Aaron Wildavsky and Adam Wildavsky, and “A False Sense of Insecurity” by John Mueller. [For some reason, Mueller’s article can’t be accessed on the web. It’s in Regulation, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall 2004.] In a nutshell, numeracy isn’t mathematical ability per se but, rather, the ability to think in terms of relative magnitudes.
A student recently sent me the following link–a powerful 6-minute illustration by Roy Beck on immigration. Using gumballs, where each gumball represents one million immigrants, he shows that the United States can’t hope to make a dent in world poverty even by doubling the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. His moral of the story is that the United States should restrict even more the number of immigrants to the United States and that the way to solve their poverty problem is to solve it in their countries. He’s very vague about how to help them but maybe that’s because this 6-minute segment is an excerpt from a longer talk–I don’t know. It would have been nice if he had at least suggested allowing more imports from those countries.
But there’s a bigger problem. By comparing one gumball (one million people) to over 5,000 gumballs (over 5 billion people), he gets his audience thinking that one million people don’t matter because they are such a tiny fraction of 5 billion. But one million people do matter.
If you think that one million people don’t matter, then surely one thousand people don’t matter. Oskar Schindler saved over 1,000 Jews from murder. Did they not matter? Did he not matter?