Green Grocers and Numeracy

Very interesting analysis in Slate Magazine analyzing the environmental impact of various crops. It turns out it is very hard to determine exactly, even for organic products, whether this fruit or vegetable or that one is better for the planet. An organic crop may use less fertilizer and pesticide but require a larger number of acres per calorie yield than its non-organic counterpart. So can we say that organic is better for the earth? Most probably more certain than a maybe.

I was not so interested in his conclusions as I was impressed by the savvy numeracy skills on display. First of all he realized he needed to normalize his variables, putting them into the context of enviornmental impact per unit yield (calories, eg). Anyone who fails to provide context for their stats sends my BS meter into the red zone. That’s why I don’t watch TV news of any political persuasion.

Another thing I liked was that he also analyzed the definition of “good for the environment” in terms of metrics. Is it a mesure of fertilizer use, pesticide use, land use, water use (per unit yield)? Usually an abstract good like environmental footprint is a function of many things — y = f(x1,x2,x3,…,xn) — and the function itself can only be approximated through statistical analysis. What you embrace as your significant measure of success tells a lot about you and your own personal bias. Anyone who presents you with one statistic to make a case for a social good is, intentionally or not, misleading you.

That’s the problem with trying to use statistics in advocacy of any kind. If you want to catch and keep people’s attention, you cannot do justice to the data. You have to pick and choose what and how you present, which means that you are required to spin whether you like it or not. That’s why you should never ever trust a short persuasive article that includes statistics. It’s also why I am a moderate in all matters of the public sphere.

The sad fact is that many advocates and leaders have to choose between being persuasive and being thorough. And we as followers must choose between being informed and bored or entertained and clueless. And I think you know which options win out most of the time.

I would love to see Numeracy and Critical Thinking, not just mathematics skills, taught in every secondary and post-secondary school. Of course, if you made it to the end of this post, I’m preaching to the choir. Bored, aren’t you?

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