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Stats? Count me out, thanks
7 September, 2003, The New Paper
One of my primary school teachers once told me that if I had started counting "one, two, three" from the time Christ was born to the present day, I still wouldn't reach a figure to match the number of atoms on the head of a pin.
I was mightily impressed by that information at that time, which is why I still remember it today.
Except that as I grew older, it occured to me that nobody lives for 2,000 years and that if anybody did, it would have been pretty silly of them to squander their longevity by counting non-stop, presumably while sleeping as well.
I also quesioned the usefulness of such knowledge - would they ask you how many atons there were on a pin head if you took up a sewing and dressmaking course?
Did the Ministry of Education know its employees were teaching atomic science in primary school and nurturing possible future terrorists?
That teacher, I recall, was full of highly accurate and utterly useless statistical information.
If you could drive your car the distance of 10 times around the equator, he said, you could reach the moon.
If you drive it at 29,000km an hour, you could reach the nearest star in 70,000 years.
At the rate people in China and India were reproducing thenselves back then, if they marched past you in four rows, the parade would go on forever.
Unfortunately during PSLE, no questions were asked about how to modify Ford Prefect cars for space travel, or why the entire Chinese and Indian populations would want to match past the students of Pasir Panjang Primary School in four rows.
As a result, our PSLE results took an astronomical dive and the principal concluded that there was more substance on a pinhead than in that teacher's skull.
Not surprisingly, the teacher didn't remain in teaching very long.
He left the country, and someone later reported that he made a lot of money in the US running an agency that compiled statistical information based on polls and surveys.
It was rumoured that his statistics were questionable (any primary school kid could have told his clients that).
But because he tended to show pleasing results and good prospects for companies that were actually verging on bankruptcies, he earned the eternal gratitude of many company directors. And possibly the eternal hatred of many shareholders.
Statistics, reliable or unreliable, are something we cannot live without.
We like to think that statistics are a modern phenomenon, but they are as old as the brains in our heads.
The pyramids of Egypt couldn't have been built without statistics and mathematics - and the earliest cavemen upgrading to wooden huts probably relied on statistics too.
("Gurrubak the Elder says four out of five huts using banana leaves for roofing collapse in high wind, so we better use attap.")
Useless statistics we can certainly do without. Saying that there are a thousand times more millionaires in Singapore today than there were 50 years ago is one example. A millionaire in the '50s felt like a duke or a prince - a millionaire today doesn't feel the same way because every other guy he runs into at the golf club is technically a millionaire.
The same situation probably applies to graduates.
Useless is one thing, depressing is another. Statistics have shown that the amount of money spent by the US space agency NASA on space exploration could have been used to solve a lot of welfare problems in the US.
So, should you scrap the rockets and use the money to alleviate poverty? Especially when statistics have also shown that women in the US spend more on cosmetics than NASA down on its programmes?
Should we still scrap NASA - or risk Armageddon by urging women to stop spending on cosmetics and donating to welfare instead?
I unwittingly used a statistical approach to a simple problem once. I ended up sounding exactly like my primary school teacher, but with more devastating results.
It happened when I was asked to fill up a suburban swimming pool in Perth.
I connected a hose to a tap and let it run for three days non-stop to fill the 60,000 litre pool.
"How much of 60,000 litres?" my friend's little daughter asked.
I thought carefully. "You see the Coke bottle over there?" I said. "You have to fill that up from the tap and pour the water in the pool 60,000 times."
She thought about it carefully, and then said, "Why didn't you just use a hose?"
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