Nicholas D. Kristof (in his New York Times op-ed column of 13 Mar 2003) conjures up a wondrously apt simile:

Governing the U.S. is like playing 200 simultaneous chess matches (while whiny columnists second-guess every move on every board). The terrorism chessboard is among the most important, but if we could just devote a bit more energy to the others, we could save thousands of lives ...

This metaphor resonates particularly well if you've ever seen a chess simul, where a grandmaster walks around a circuit from board to board, takes a few seconds to glance at each position, makes a move, and then strolls on to deal with the next opponent. (After ~40 orbits the GM usually has won almost all of the games.)

Kristof's big point --- an excellent one --- is that the world is complex and that it's unwise to focus narrowly on single issues. He observes that the death toll from car accidents in the USA is ~43k/year (= ~120/day) ... from influenza and associated pneumonia, ~36k/year ... from guns, ~26k/year ... and from food-borne illness, ~5k/year.

But statistics, sprinkled as spice onto an article, are like a red flag waved in my face. A quick check in the Statistical Abstract of the United States (2003 edition) reveals that of the annual ~2.4 million deaths in this country more than 900k are due to major cardiovascular disease and another 500k are from cancers. Accidents take 100k (of which motor vehicles account for ~40k, as Kristof correctly states). Diabetes kills ~70k, suicide ~30k, and homicide ~20k. The 'flu and pneumonia account for ~60k (much more than Kristof said).

Many of these deaths are essentially unavoidable, at least in the plausible near future. Others could be prevented at huge expense on a national level but at a trivial cost (or even with significant cash savings!) on a personal basis --- such as the constellation of diseases associated with obesity and lack of exercise, or the automobile-related deaths that follow from drunk driving or excessive speed.

So Mr. Kristof could have made an even stronger case than he did for broadening the government's perspective beyond a single chess board in a simultaneous exhibition. Statistics are good --- not to tell lies with, but to sharpen the understanding of complicated situations.

(see also RacialRelationships (10 Jan 2004), GamblingAddiction (5 Feb 2004), BadArithmetic (24 Feb 2004), ... )

TopicSociety - TopicScience - 2004-03-15

(correlates: HappyMoments, RazorBladeEconomics, ReaderAsPerformer, ...)