Counting on Inumeracy

I’m hardly the first to note that a lack of familiarity with science and mathematics does broad damage to society, far beyond debates that are normally labled as scientific.

However, it is a point that bears repeating. One of the biggest problems is the way people can be hoodwinked by complete rubbish because doing some simple maths is not something that comes naturally to them.

Take for example this article by Alan Oxley. He attempts to play on people’s sympathy, arguing that the ban on live meat export will cause Indonesia’s poor to go hungry. As a letter writer noted the following day, beef is far too expensive to be accesible to Indonesia’s poor. However, even if you didn’t know this, a little maths comes in handy.

The figure that has been all over the media for the number of cattle exported to Indonesia is 500,000. Sounds like a lot. But the population of Indonesia is somewhere between 230 and 240 million. Each cow produces about 200 kg beef (ok I had to look that one up, but I doubt anyone was thinking the figure was several tonnes).

So we’re talking 100 million kilograms between 230 million people. Or about 430 grams per person per year. Much less than a meal a month. Clearly Oxley’s claim “The government’s decision to ban exports will increase the price of meat, a staple for Indonesia’s poor, by more than one-third” is utter rubbish. Either meat is not a staple, or so much of it is consumed the this is a drop in the ocean. That’s without factoring in the huge discrepancies of wealth in Indonesia, which certainly mean the rich eat far more beef per head than the poor.

Now Oxley is a climate change denier and a fierce campaigner in favour of trashing the world’s tropical rainforests for palm palm oil (he get’s onto this issue later in the article). He’s not dumb though. Presumably he is quite well aware of how little Australian beef the Indonesian poor actually eat, and how little they will notice this decision.

However, he is counting on some readers, even in The Age, not bothering to whip out a calculator (let alone do a very simple bit of maths in their head). Sadly, I suspect his confidence is not entirely misplaced.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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