Journalistic innumeracy, part 551

Verlyn Klinkenborg visits

a luxury game resort in Africa, and wonders at the human cost of setting

aside so much land (over 540 square miles) for game:

At $1,500 a night, Sasakwa is one of the most luxurious resorts in Africa.

Which leaves only a few questions: Do you really need a pedicure after watching

a cheetah with her cubs? And do you judge conservation solely by the good

it does? Or do you judge it by the good it does, divided by the number of

people who are able to witness and directly benefit from it?

What makes these questions more complicated is that Grumeti Reserves borders

the fastest-growing human population anywhere around the Serengeti between

the park and Lake Victoria…

Sasakwa Lodge looks south to the center of the Serengeti ecosystem. The line

of smoke you often see on the southern horizon rises from a firebreak along

the park border. But there are other fires even closer, more and more of them

all the time, the cooking and brick-burning fires of an Africa that has been

kept at bay to leave room for wildlife. To see the smoke from those fires,

you would have to look in a different direction, and no veranda points that

way. So you have another cup of tea and look south again, out at the fullness,

the familiarity of nature.

It’s that "divided by" which gets me: I just can’t fathom what it’s

meant to mean. Does it mean that if you halve the number of beneficiaries you

double the value of the resort? Does it mean that if you successfully manage

to involve "the fastest-growing human population anywhere around the Serengeti"

as part of the resort, then it becomes essentially worthless, since you’re dividing

the value by so many people? Or does it just mean that neither Verlyn Klinkenborg

nor his editors have a single numerate bone in their collective bodies?

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3 Responses to Journalistic innumeracy, part 551

  1. David Sucher says:

    If he had written something like “in some rough proportion” would that make any difference?

    I share your frustration with (as I put) people who fail to “do the math.” And his phrasing is not easy to grasp. But his broad point is pretty clear. No? At least I got it, I think. It’s clear that you did, too: Klinkenborg “wonders at the human cost of setting aside so much land (over 540 square miles) for game” when there are so many people just outside the preserve who in dire need.

  2. Felix says:

    Right. The broad point is clear; it’s just his attempt to use mathematical terminology (“divided by”) backfires completely, and probably means exactly the opposite to what he wanted it to mean. Even if he’d put “multiplied by”, that would have been better, but it would still have been a bit weird. Really, what he meant was that maybe we should take into account the opportunity cost of using this land for game rather than people, when we judge how much good it’s doing. Something like this:

    Do you judge conservation solely by the good it does? Or do you judge it by the good it does, compared to the good that land could do for the local population?

    But that would probably be setting the bar so high that no land would ever be conserved for wildlife.

  3. Stefan says:

    Whoa, that’s quite a slippery slope there. Soon, you’re going to tell me we should do away with old growth and virgin forests in the western US because they’re just forest fires waiting to happen.

    Wildlife refuges are good in and of themselves. If we can get rich people to to make an economic argument fort them, that’s even better.

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