Friday, September 16, 2005

Global Priorities

The media has a serious problem with presenting information in a useless format, with no context, no background information, and no way to understand numbers on a human level. "The deficit is now X billion dollars." "City infastructure spending will be increased X million dollars." "The U.S. Congress approved X billion more dollars for the Iraq war." No doubt some people scarcely notice the difference between "million" and "billion".

Ordinary mortals cannot take the isolated numbers scattered throughout thousands of news "stories" and put them together into a complete quantitative picture of the world. What do these numbers mean on a level humans can actually understand (e.g. per capita)? How do they relate to other statistics? And the most pressing question in my mind is, why doesn't the media put their numbers in a meaningful context?

The following is the sort of thing I'm talking about -- the sort of thing I never expect to see on the 6 o'clock news:

Global Spending Priorities: in $US billions:
Basic education for everyone in the world 6
Cosmetics in the United States 8
Water and sanitation for everyone in the world 9
Ice cream in Europe 11
Reproductive health for all women in the world 12
Perfumes in Europe and the United States 12
Basic health and nutrition for everyone in the world 13
Pet foods in Europe and the United States 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotics drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780
(Source) To the above I would add: U.S. spending on Iraq War, $78 billion per year ($195 billion / 2.5 years)

The topic of global priorities has been weighing on my mind recently, because I know they are all messed up, yet no one seems to notice. Everybody--reporters, politicians, and every kind of activist--likes to quote big scary numbers, without saying how they compare to all the other big scary numbers. Hunger activists know that enormous numbers of people are dying of malnutrition every day, and how much must be spent to put a dent in that problem. Water activists know how many people are getting sick from unsanitary water and how much might need to be spent to make a difference in that area. And Cancer activists know how many people are dying of cancer, though probably having no idea how much it will cost to find a cure. And Iraq debators on both sides know how much the U.S. spend on the war, and how many U.S. soldiers are dying (although the body count of 'liberated' civilians seems rather less well-known.)

Anyway, for some reason, these activists never get together and figure out what issues are in most dire need of solving. There are lots of people looking at a big picture, but very few looking at the biggest picture: the global priorities, the global proportions, the global disparities and this global disaster that we live in, but are largely unaware of.

I would like to see more global-scale comparisons between different issues. I hope you would, too.

P.S. Another problem with numbers in the media is that sources are often omitted. Sometimes I wonder how trustworthy the stated number are. Even knowing the source, reliability is difficult for an individual to determine. However, I have no solution to propose for that problem.

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