Reading for Social Math

Here are three great examples of social math from a casual Sunday’s read in my local paper, the September 26, 2010 edition of the Washington Post.

Example #1: Economic Inequality

For two generations after World War II, a blue-collar man could support his family; buy a house, car and washing machine; and send his kids to good public schools.  The typical blue-collar household in 1973 was more than twice as well off as the equivalent household 25 years later.  (Joan C. Williams, “Learn to bridge the class divide,” B5)

Why is this good social math?  If tied to an assertion that US fiscal policies are undermining its values (think American Dream), this brings it home in a way that gets out of the them vs. us trope of the rich vs. the poor and, instead, shows the impact on the average Joe.  Note that we don’t have to learn how much the house, car and washing machine cost – which would have muddled this message. We just get the take away number: more than twice as much, 25 years later.  A causal chain that placed economic policies in the middle of the equation would have made this even better.

Example #2: Conservatives Attack Spending

They say a billion seconds ago, my parents were children, a billion minutes ago, Jesus was alive, a billion hours ago was the Stone Age, but a billion dollars ago, at the rate the federal government is spending, was six minutes ago.  (Rand Paul quoted in Perry Bacon, “In Kentucky race, a strategic divide,” A3.)

Why is this good social math?  Because it is designed to amplify the largeness of the debt and to subtly infuse it with the conclusion that this is immoral (see Jesus) and retrograde (see Stone Age).  It makes these points under the ruse of a kind of historical allusion, instead of a rhetorical accusation.

Example #3:  Emphasizing Impact

In a story about the cells secretly removed from a dying woman in 1951 and their transformative impact on medical science…

Laid end to end, (Henrietta Lacks’ cells) would circle the earth three times. ..and their combined weight is an estimated 50 million metric cells.”(Darryl Fears, “Unsung hero of modern medicine hailed,” A6.)

Why is this good social math?  Cells are tiny. We know that.  The fact that they could circle the earth three times – huge!  Subtly, this gets us over the reality that this woman had a medical procedure for which she did not give approval.  Oh well, it seems to signal to us, consider the impact!  Issues of science are especially ripe for social math, as people struggle to consider exactly how important or impactful a particular finding might be.

Can’t wait to see what next Sunday’s paper washes up on shore….Are you seeing good and bad examples in your local papers, online and in broadcast media? Can you share your harvest with your fellow FrameWorkers?

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