Day: 2 June 2012

head-counts are representative, percentages are shady

For who knows how long, I’ve been suspect of nearly everything that comes with a percentage, especially surveys or polls. Why? Because surveys or polls use percentages in much the same way that Gorgias used rhetoric. They make grandiose claims about a multitude of concerns, with the hope that the towering figures will awe the masses. 67% of doctors agree on the cause of ‘X’, 95% of Europeans say ‘Y’ about the Euro-crisis, 78% of women prefer shampoo ‘Z’, and most recently: ‘In the US, 46% hold creationist view of human origins.’

My issue is not with the particular topic of discussion (i.e. human origins); my problem is with what the shady percentage conveys. Specifically, this figure suggests a reality that is neither consistent with the implication of its own claim nor with how things are or might be in reality. Quoi? We’ll start with the first half. As of today, at 11.09am (UK time) the US population stands at 313,658,703.* Thus, when the study says ‘46% hold creationist view of human origins’ it is implying that 144,283,003.38 Americans agree with that view.

However, and this is the second half of my problem, that 144,283,003.38 is not reality–i.e. it does not reflect the true number of those who in fact hold the creationist view. The survey indicates that only ‘a random sample of 1,012 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia’ (emphasis added). If my maths are right: 46% of that 1,012 sample is 465.52, and that figure is a pathetic 0.000148% of the US population. Call me cynical, but I fear that if the study did involve every single US citizen the number (or percentage) of those holding a creationist view of human origins would not reach the proposed 46%.

I can understand why surveys like this one opt for percentages instead or solid numbers. It sounds better to say 46%, which implies a significant portion of the country, than to say 465.52 people, who could fit into a small neighborhood in a medium-sized town. It made better sense for Gorgias to rhetorically woo the crowds into thinking he possessed great skill in a multitude of professions and avoid circumstances in which he would have to prove he had none.

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* This figure is flexible for the simple fact it represents registered persons/births. Just for fun: by the time I finished this post (i.e. 11.51am), the population grew to: 313,658,902. Mazal Tov!

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