Measuring Small Things
by Dwayne Phillips
Measuring small things is much more difficult than measuring large things. We do it anyways and report the results with great confidence. Woe is us.
It is more difficult to measure small things that it is to measure large things. Consider measuring the diameter of a sphere. We can use a device that is accurate to 1/10th of an inch. If the diameter of the sphere is 1 inch, we are off by 10%. If the diameter of the sphere is 100 inches, we are off by 0.1%. Hmm, measuring the smaller sphere is much more difficult.
This difficulty of small things extends to events in everyday life. Consider a drug test on ten persons. If each person is healthy, the drug is 100% effective. If one sickly person joins the group and the drug fails, now it is only about 90% effective — wow, that was a big jump. If we test the drugs on 1,000 persons and a few sickly persons join, the drug drops from 100% effective to something like 99% effective. Hmmm, a few this and that doesn’t make a big difference.
Now we consider America. We have a population of about 330 million. If we perform a study that involves 3 million of us, that is a 1% study. That is a small number and we are back to the difficulty of measuring small things. If something happens with 30,000 of us, let’s see, that is 0.01% of us. Whoa, that is a tiny group. Now we are trying to measure tiny things. That is really difficult.
If something happens to 30,000 of us, that seems like a big number, but is only a tiny number. It seems unfair, but no legitimate news organization would report something that happens to 0.01% of us.
I must be naive. The news media reports everything that happens to 0.01% of us and everything that happens to tinier groups than that. Yes, I must be naive.