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Damn Numbers


Published: 07/30/2012


 My afternoon walk often takes me past the local elementary school. All the way, the intersections on the route are monitored by crossing guards. The other day, as usual, 10 to 15 minutes before classes would be out, the mothers from all around the neighbourhood hurried down to the school to pick up their children and escort them safely home.

They do this because they know the streets are dangerous. Every day children are abducted; they disappear. The statistics tell the tale; 56,000 children were abducted in Canada in 2004! This reality is reinforced by photos of missing children appearing on billboards and milk cartons.

However there is a number that is not sensationally reported: in Canada last year, of the 56,000, only three were abducted by strangers. Three!

For heaven's sake, we don't have a problem with unsafe streets, we have a problem with broken marriages, child custody battles, with separation and divorce settlements that people feel are unjust and inequitable.

Here's another example of trouble with numbers. There was a huge lineup at the lottery kiosk at the plaza. The 649 Lottery's top prize that week was advertised as 'One of the biggest Jackpots ever.' That night the TV news interviewed some people buying tickets. "What would you do if you won?" they were asked.

They'd pay off debts, travel, invest, give to family members, or like in the recent TV commercial promoting the lottery, buy cottages on Lake Joseph for all the children.

Ah, how nice it is to dream. One little fact is not featured at the kiosks or in the advertising. The odds against winning the lottery, of walking away with the whole package, are astronomical. They are not a million to one, nor 10 million to one. The odds for the big payout come in at around 14 billion to one. That is 14 followed by nine zeros. There's a far better chance of the girl next door marrying Prince William than winning the lottery.

During the Christmas and New Year's holidays, articles surfaced in the papers about how painfully hard the season can be on lonely people, those who remember happier times. The articles were based on reports that the strains of the season are so stressful there is a substantial rise in suicides. Thus many church congregations hold 'Blue Christmas' services, and many clubs and social agencies make a special effort to try to counter this terrible reality.

Suicide is a major problem. However, in reality, Christmas does not affect the numbers. In December 2003, Dr. Herbert Hendin of the American Society of Suicide Prevention reported, "Suicide does not peak during the winter holidays ... suicide is linked to mental illness, substance abuse, alcoholism. It is not simply something that is precipitated by some event like losing a girlfriend, or a job that didn't work out."

So how come so many people believe the opposite?

The generous Canadian response to the Tsunami tragedy confirmed our view that we are generous people reaching out to people. We hear about a million dollars given to project, about Canada forgiving a poor country's debt, and our Prime Ministers, when on the international stage, are quick to pledge we'll work to solve the urgent needs in areas like Africa.

However, there are those numbers. The UN has set a benchmark commitment by prosperous countries like Canada at 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product (that's 70 cents for every hundred dollars of GDP).

What do we give? Only 0.28% of GDP (that is 28 cents for every $100 GDP). Oh, yes ... 70% of that money comes back to us through jobs and the purchase of goods and services in Canada. So now, let's see ... deduct 70% ... that works out that we gave about eight and a half cents -- a long way from 70 cents.

I'm not very good at numbers. Maybe that's why I am skeptical when numbers are thrown at us. What I do know is that what a lot of us believe just isn't so.

How come we don't know that only three children were abducted by strangers? Why aren't the lottery odds advertised, and what's with this Christmas suicide myth? Why doesn't the government talk about the stingy eight and a half cents cents?

Who doesn't want us to know these things? Who profits? Why do I always end up with more questions?

Jim Campbell is an Oakville-based writer. Send your comments by e-mail to

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