As I've confessed before, I'm just a simple cheapskate, and complex math has never been my strong suit. For example, I can't for the life of me remember the Pythagorean Theorem or figure out how to apply it. Thankfully I've not had a need to use it since ninth grade math class. (I imagine the Pythagoreans must use it all the time though, so if I ever visit Pythagoria, I'll be sure to bone up on it.)
My severe case of degenerative mathematica aside, even I've picked up on some mighty odd looking numbers being thrown around these days. It seems like that tends to happen every four years -- and to a lesser extent every other year -- coinciding with the election cycle.
Now, I'm not accusing anyone of using wrong numbers. That would be dishonest. But I'm talking about using the right numbers -- fine numbers, outstanding numbers, exquisite numbers, for that matter -- but in the wrong context. Or at least in a context that could be misleading for those of us with early onset digital dementia.
The case of "When Bad Things Happen to Good Numbers" that really has my Green Cheapskate leotard in a wad these days is a television ad that's been airing for months now. It's backed by API, the American Petroleum Institute, although you really need to drill deep in API's God-bless-America-beautiful website to figure out what the heck "API" stands for. Maybe it's just me, but I'm always suspicious of any website that requires a click beyond the homepage to figure out who actually owns the site.
You've probably seen this ad so many times by now that it's only still showing on the projection screen of your subconscious, and that's always the most dangerous type of ad -- one you've come to accept and not question. This commercial features a perky looking woman talking about how the U.S., unlike other countries, places limits on where companies can drill for gas and oil (silly us). The gist of the commercial is that if oil and gas companies had the freedom to drill wherever they want in the U.S., America's energy problems could be all but solved.
Here's where the misleading numbers come in: The ad (and website) claims that there's enough oil right here in the U.S. to keep 60 million automobiles on the road for 60 years. Assuming the numbers are correct, that sounds really reassuring, doesn't it? After all, anyone who's old enough to really listen to the commercial is comforted by the fact that, while oil is limited, "at least I ain't gonna have to worry about it running out in my lifetime."
What the API commercial conveniently fails to mention is that there are already more than four times that number of vehicles on the road in the U.S., about 250 million total. (And that number keeps rising, spurred by population growth and demand for autos). So in fairness to viewers, wouldn't it be more informative to say that there's enough oil right here in the U.S. to keep our cars and trucks on the road for about 15 more years, rather than giving us a calculation arbitrarily based on 25 percent of our cars and a 60 year timeframe?
But gosh, when you put it that way, it doesn't sound nearly so comforting, does it? It doesn't get you so excited about the wisdom of drill-baby-drill. In fact it's sobering, even scary. If we realize the urgency of the situation facing us, it makes a far stronger case for strict conservation (perhaps even rationing) and immediate action in developing alternative energy than it makes for drilling everywhere and anywhere for a paltry 15 year fix of oil. Most of all, it makes you realize that the problem is very likely to come to a head within your lifetime; it's something you need to deal with, starting today.
Cynical me, I'm guessing that API didn't just randomly decide to base its math on 60 million cars and a 60 year timeframe. I'm even thinking they might have planned it that way in order to lull people into accepting their proposed solution, but then again I'm just a simple cheapskate with limited math skills. Maybe their rationale even has something to do with the Pythagorean Theorem, but will you join me in contacting API through the http://www.energytomorrow.org website and asking them what's up with their deceptive deciphering?
Also check out this API gem from 2007, conflating fears of the 70s oil embargo with regulation of their industry:
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