Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Context? We aint got not context...

One of the most penetrating and trenchant insights of the last five years was by Douglas W. Kmiec in a 2004 review of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 in National Review.
Mr. Kmiec writes,

“…Moore's political fulmination offers up a nominal truth so shorn of context as to be rendered utterly false.”

The brilliance of this is that it forcefully points out something that many, who like to comment on current affairs, either never knew, have forgotten or are purposely ignoring - namely, the importance of context in a discussion of “facts”.

This ought not be a tricky idea, but for people with an agenda, context which could diminish (or, on the other hand amplify) the emotional ‘punch’ of a particular statistic can be discarded to suit the ends of whoever is talking.

A large factor in this, sadly, is that the American people’s attention span is such that there is frequently no time for context in the fifteen or thirty-second sound bites which today pass for reasoned discourse.

Nevertheless, without context there can be no understanding - and without understanding, there can be no good decisions.

A brief example: If I tell you that Mrs. Smith died today, leaving four children - you may respond with sadness and even shock at this tragedy. If, however, I then tell you that Mrs. Smith was 108 years old, had been in ill health for several years and that her children are all in their seventies, you would likely have a different response than your first one.

Now if you read the newspaper or watch the news you’ve no doubt heard certain people say we need to get out of Iraq. When queried as to why this is, they will often make the statement, “We’ve lost 2000 soldiers in Iraq!”

Is this true? Yes. Is this bad? Yes. But without context you will never know how bad. Without knowing how bad, you cannot make an intelligent decision regarding a proper course of action. Its weight and import as a fact are dependent on its context.

So, what is the context that we’re missing? Is it the weather we had at the time these soldiers were lost? (NOTE: I use "soldier" as a generic term, I am not ignoring or downplaying the efforts and sacrifices of marines, sailors or airmen) Is it the color clothing they were wearing? Is it their political affiliation? No. The only context that makes any sense is the military and historical context of their deaths. Only by comparing their loss with similar losses in similar situations can we measure ‘how bad’ these losses are.

To that end, please consider some other facts which can reasonably be compared to the one at issue in order to give us the proper context:

We’ve lost two thousand soldiers in three years of combat in Iraq.

-We lost 116,000 soldiers in under a year during WWI.

-We lost an average of around 12,000 soldiers every month during WWII.

-We lost 2,500 soldiers in just eight hours at Normandy in 1944

-We lost 19,000 soldiers on Okinawa in three months in 1945

-We lost over 13,000 soldiers a year during the Korean conflict.

-We lost an average of 5,000 soldiers per year for the ten years from 1964 through 1973 in Vietnam.

-We lost roughly 3,000 civilians in about three hours as a result of the 9/11 atrocity.

-We lost about 5,000 soldiers during training accidents between 1981 and 1989

When these facts are placed side-by-side with the fact of our losses in Iraq, it becomes quite clear that, while tragic as every lost life is, we are doing damned well at keeping our people safe over there.

We are not suffering catastrophic losses and while we should constantly strive to improve the safety of our people, we can and should stay there as the Iraqis pick themselves up and put their country back together.

"Facts", devoid of context are just statistics. And we all remember the old saw that there are, "lies, damned lies and statistics". Just piling up statistics to support an argument is not sound logically.

There are gravely important issues to resolve. We do ourselves no small disservice by just tossing out statistics without considering them thoroughly.

I consider this such an important topic that as time goes by I'll revisit it whenever the "discussion" of an issue seems to lack important context.


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