On Using Consistent Units

Although the media have been getting better in dealing with numbers, the statistician in me sometimes recoils at such reports. An example is in today’s NY Times op-ed piece on Vietnam, in which the author writes that now is “an appropriate time to honor the suffering and the sacrifice of all those who served, including the 58,000 American service members, the estimated 1.3 million North and South Vietnamese fighters and the two million civilians who were killed during the conflict.”

I’m sure that it follows strict Times guidelines as to how to report numbers, but it gives one a visual impression that is akin to the quote apocryphally attributed to Stalin: “the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.” I would think that a better way to report this would be to write of “the 58,000 American service members, the estimated 1,300,000 North and South Vietnamese fighters and the 2,000,000 civilians who were killed during the conflict.” It provides a more accurate indication of the extent of the tragic consequences of the Vietnam war.

Author: Mike Maltz

Michael D. Maltz is Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice and of Information and Decision Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is currently an adjunct professor of sociology at the Ohio State University His formal training is in electrical engineering (BEE, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1959; MS & PhD Stanford University, 1961, 1963), and he spent seven years in that field. He then joined the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (now National Institute of Justice), where he became a criminologist of sorts. After three years with NIJ, he spent thirty years at the University of Illinois at Chicago, during which time he was a part-time Visiting Fellow at the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. Maltz is the author of Recidivism, coauthor of Mapping Crime in Its Community Setting, and coeditor of Envisioning Criminology.

8 thoughts on “On Using Consistent Units”

  1. It's likely, if the military had been all volunteer, there would have been a lot fewer than 58,000 deaths. Or no war in the first place. It's all too easy to be careless with military lives when you can shanghai replacements.

    1. It's honestly earned emotional impact, because it more accurately represents the relative sizes of the quantities involved.

      ETA: To put it differently, the representation Mike complains about dishonestly flattens the emotional impact, because it inaccurately represents the relative sizes of the quantities involved. If something really is horrifying, that's how it should appear.

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