Monday, September 26, 2011

Japan vs. United States in squishy numbers

There's an international network of newspapers and web sites spawned by practitioners of Falun Gong (a.k.a. Falun Dafa), a much-persecuted community in China. Falun Gong is a system of meditation and slow-moving exercise (qigong), but the Chinese government got its authoritarian panties in a bunch during the late 1990s when practitioners grew numerous (tens of millions) and showed signs of resisting government strictures on their practice and organization. It got ugly -- death and imprisonment ugly -- and it remains illegal and dangerous to practice Falun Gong in China today.

The organization and its affiliated newspapers and web sites fight back, criticizing and satirizing the Chinese government relentlessly. Some of these papers and sites seem closely-linked to the Falun Gong organization itself; others take similarly critical positions toward the P.R.C. but are less shrill in promoting Falun Gong and in encouraging Chinese citizens to leave that nation's Communist Party.

Are these papers reliable as news sources? Not so much, I don't think. Not that they hide the fact, wearing an agenda very prominently on their metaphorical sleeves. But sometimes they're pretty entertaining. The Chinese government earns a very large proportion of the criticism aimed its way.

I don't recognize more than a few characters of Chinese myself, but am close to a newshound who is fluent. Last week he passed along a link to the Chinese-language website of the newspaper Kan Zhong Guo in which comparisons are drawn (in pretty hilarious graphics) between the United States and Japan. Kan Zhong Guo is a newspaper in the category that is less closely linked to Falun Gong: it is critical of the Chinese government in similar veins to those of newspapers that are clearly a part of the Falun Gong organization, suggesting it might be too; but the link is less pronounced, perhaps less direct. The difference, in my view, amounts to the number of grains of salt with which one ought to take their published claims if they're not confirmed by a more trusted source.

In the article, as you might expect, Americans are found on average to be taller, heavier, and live fewer years than Japanese. Americans have higher incomes by 16% but pay 266% the Japanese average in annual medical care costs. Drinking? Americans drink more alcohol (it's actually a near tie when adjusted for average weight); but we each drink 216 liters of soft drinks per year compared to Japan's per capita annual average of 22 -- a claimed difference that approaches an order of magnitude! We watch 2.25 times the number of hours of television each day that Japanese do. Our average IQ is lower (98 compared to 105). We consume nearly twice as much energy per capita.

Not so flattering, eh? Well, the article does claim that Americans share household chores more equally between the sexes. Japanese guys skate by doing 17% of household chores, according to Kan Zhong Guo, while American fellas shoulder 42% of the burden.

Are these reliable numbers? Well, as I implied above, I don't trust much that's published in what our household fondly refers to as "the Falun Gong newspapers." So I cross-checked the easiest numbers to find -- lifespan. Interestingly, I found they were pretty close to sources I trusted better.

Here's data from the United Nations Statistics Division on life expectancy at birth compared with the Kan Zhong Guo data:

UN: life expectancy (male): 76 (U.S.) vs. 80 (Japan)
Kan Zhong Guo: life expectancy (male): 76 (U.S.) vs. 78 (Japan)

UN: life expectancy (female): 81 (U.S.) vs. 87 (Japan)
Kan Zhong Guo
: life expectancy (female): 81 (U.S.) vs. 86 (Japan)

Okay. That earns a bit of cred. So I dug some more. From UN Data, Gross National Income per capita for the U.S. and Japan: $45,835 vs. $39,853, a difference of about 15% (compared to Kan Zhong Guo's 16%).

The Economist posted OECD data from 2007 (dated, but free) that compares average daily TV viewing among a number of countries, including the U.S. (at a bit over 8 hours) and Japan (a bit more than 3.5 hours). Looks to me like OECD might have been the source of Kan Zhong Guo's statistics in this case.

Soft drink consumption? Adweek cited Beverage Digest figures for the U.S. in 2009: 736 8 oz servings, which multiplies out to 174 liters -- about 80% of the quantity cited by Kan Zhong Guo. Hmmmm...wonder what that much more significant difference is about.

The real point here is that in an age of information overload it takes a lot of work to dig into questions of reliability. Who do you trust? How do you fairly and reasonably compare analysis of apples to analysis of oranges? Where the heck did they hide that table on the Gravenstein harvest?

Information glut is often touted as an aid to citizenship, and it can be that; but availability of information by the petabyte hardly implies that citizenship is easy, whether one practices a system of meditation and slow exercise or not.

It's easy to understand why a lot of folks would rather just laugh at the funny pictures.

What have you done lately to verify information you found on the intertubes?

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