Friday, April 25, 2014

Fwd: Numbers never lie, but they can be misleading

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: "Kate Gordon" <>
Date: Apr 25, 2014 11:01 AM
Subject: Numbers never lie, but they can be misleading
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Numbers matter. But even when they're accurate, they're often misleading. Here are some examples from the past week.
NEWS 04.24.2014 New map could refocus state's pollution battles » Los Angeles Times 04.23.2014 Climate change threatens California's air quality, report says » Los Angeles Times 04.22.2014 The New Abolitionism » The Nation 04.24.2014 California Edging Closer to Regulating Groundwater for the First Time » KQED 04.20.2014 California's Drought Ripples Through Businesses, Then To Schools » National Public Radio 04.23.2014 Jury awards Texas family nearly $3 million in fracking case » Los Angeles Times 04.23.2014 Obama's Last Shot » Rolling Stone 04.24.2014 U.S. solar power grows by 418% in 4 years and has strong 'growth prospects' – EIA » E&E News ClimateWire 04.22.2014 Forty-Four Years of Earth Day » New York Times 04.23.2014 Renewable energy: Biofuels heat up » Nature

Numbers never lie, but they can be misleading

Human beings love to count things. Some scientists hypothesize that humans have a "number sense" allowing us to approximate large quantities, while linguists have noted that even the most simple societies have the ability to count up to five (the number of fingers on one hand). (There's a fascinating article about this whole issue in an old New Yorker I came across recently, for those who are looking for a break from their perusal of the latest IPCC report.)
Yes, it's late and I have my obligatory glass of wine, but I really am heading somewhere with this! The fact is that numbers underpin most policy and political decisions, so they're critically important. How many jobs won or lost? How much money spent or saved?  We express the merits or demerits of nearly every potential policy in numeric terms, whether Gross Domestic Product, tax burden, or the cost of a gallon of milk or gasoline.
So, numbers matter. But even when they're accurate, they're often misleading. Here are some examples from the past week from the energy and climate world of why individual numbers don't always add up to a complete picture.

GDP – What's the value of $10 trillion?

Chris Hayes has a fascinating piece in The Nation this week drawing a historical parallel between the money oil companies would have to leave on the table if they stopped extracting fossil fuels – approximately $10 trillion – and the money left on the table by slave owners after the Civil War. According to Hayes, "The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865 – and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we've ever fought."  Sobering.
Of course, oil companies don't have to simply leave money on the table; they're powerful and well-resourced enough to become the economic leaders of a new, low-carbon energy economy if they so choose. Witness Shell Oil, already hedging its bets as one of the largest global investors in biofuels R&D today. On the other hand, of course, there's Exxon Mobil Corp., which simultaneously told its shareholders several weeks ago that "the risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action" – and also that it will continue to base its business model on fossil fuels.

California oil and gas jobs: direct, indirect, induced … disputable.

This week the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) released an economic impact study it commissioned from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. The report claims the oil and gas industry in California is responsible for 468,000 jobs. It may come as no surprise to some readers that the industry is, in the words of President George W. Bush, practicing "fuzzy math." Our own James Barba posted a blog this week questioning the numbers using some of the industry's own previous studies.  As James points out, "With so many conflicting versions ... it's little surprise WSPA is having difficulty keeping the story straight. A bit of advice from one of history's greatest storytellers, Mark Twain: 'If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.'"
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