Numbers in Politics

Technically and philosophically speaking, numbers are about the most literal and objective things we apply to our everyday lives.

Whereas humans can disagree and debate on what constitutes a valuable painting or piece of literature – arguing whether 1 + 1 equals 2 is significantly more difficult.

However, numbers do lose their value when they are used without context or relation to something else. For example, if your friend were to tell you he won third place in a hot dog eating contest, that statement would hold no real value (other than giving you insight into your friend’s questionable hobbies).

Conversely, if your friend was to tell you that he won third place in a hot dog eating contest against eighty other people (as opposed to, say, eight other people) the value of “third place” now carries weight. It’s measurable against some other standard.

This concept applies to everything in life and is quite important, particularly in the realm of politics. Politicians, spokespeople, talking heads, and journalists are CONTINUALLY throwing out numbers to shock and/or persuade their target audience.

Yet, they rarely give the context of these numbers and this is a disconcerting and irresponsible approach to politics and discussion. Scrutinizing statistics without a frame of reference facilitates a skewed and incorrect way of looking at things… giving way to potentially capricious actions, beliefs, and mandates.

This very concept came about recently when a friend’s Facebook question surfaced regarding socialized healthcare (because everyone knows every great debate happens on Facebook).

My friend had asked for a general opinion about the pros and cons of a socialized healthcare system. It was a reasonable question, countered with reasonable arguments on both sides of the debate. However, one respondent gave the following reasoning to buttress his “anti-socialist” attitude:

“Socialized medicine wouldn’t work in the U.S. like it does in Canada and other smaller countries. Canada has a population of 37 million to our 327 million.”

Population size is almost ALWAYS the go-to rebuttal when discussing socialized medicine in America and it’s a TERRIBLE argument to make.

Ignoring this Facebook user’s populous numbers (I didn’t bother fact-checking them), his rationale makes zero sense without factoring in”per capita.” In fact, MOST arguments with regard to politics and populous make zero sense if the ratio of people to the subject matter isn’t accounted for.

In this particular case, the Facebook man’s statement that the U.S. is significantly larger than Canada is undeniably accurate. His assessment that the size difference between the two counties is why public healthcare would be problematic in the U.S. is inaccurate… unless he were to give ratios.

Yes, a country with more people lends itself to dealing with the burden of more sick people. But it also allows for more doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals, ambulances, hospitals, and clinics, along with more people paying into taxes.

So, if America had the same number of hospitals and professionals as Canada does then yes … there would be droves of U.S. citizens waiting to receive medical attention.

But if there were, say, 3.7 million Canadians in the healthcare industry and 32.7 million Americans in the healthcare industry, that would be an equal 10% dispersed among both countries.

To be clear, this article is not intended to address or argue the benefits and downfalls of socialized medicine – that was merely an example.

The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the importance of statistics in relation to the world around us. We are living in a time when facts are stretched and manipulated, ad nauseam. It’s our responsibility to decipher news articles and research with a critical eye and to ALWAYS take into account context.

Because – while some researchers at some obscure college in some obscure country discovered that 80% of their participants grew nose hair at alarming rates when subsisting on a diet of celery – that conclusion may not hold as much scientific weight if the study only had 6 people.


  1. Herb Rice

    That’s it for me! No more celery. We are the only species in which hair continues to grow as we get old. No stats available. Just a feeling!. So, have a laugh on me.

  2. The Western system of relying on empirical data deals with effects. Dealing with effects normally does not provide solutions.
    Conceptual thinking deals with causes and can provide solutions.

    We live in the information age, which is the same as saying the effect age. Our reasoning is incapable of providing solutions to societal issues. Have you noticed?


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