SOME numbers are interesting, and significant


We have a lot of arguments here based on the fact that some of y’all are numbers people and I’m a word guy.

But sometimes I appreciate numbers, too.

I don’t like them when they don’t mean much. For instance, back when I was still at the paper, there was a period in which the newsroom would post a “By the numbers” graphic with some stories. The numbers were usually not very pertinent to understanding the story. It was obvious that some senior editor (I suspect a managing editor who was at the paper in those days, but I don’t know because our interactions with the newsroom were minimal) had decreed that there would be at least one such feature a day, whether the story lent itself to that treatment or not.

But fivethirtyeight has a feature called “Significant Digits,” or “SigDig,” which identify stories with numbers that mean something. A sampling from today’s installment:

4 congressmen

Rep. Patrick Meehan, Republican of Pennsylvania, will likely face an investigation by the House Ethics Committee. Meehan reportedly used taxpayer money to settle a complaint by an aide that he made repeated romantic overtures towards her, and grew hostile when she did not reciprocate. Meehan was, until these accusations came out, on the House Ethics Committee that’s investigated the sexual misconduct cases of at least four male members. [The New York TimesThe Boston Globe]

86 patients

China is testing cutting-edge gene therapy technology on human beings, with at least 86 Chinese patients having had their genes edited so far. China’s regulations on experimenting with humans are considerably more lax than many other countries’. [The Wall Street Journal]

1,062 Twitter accounts

Twitter has discovered another 1,062 accounts linked to a Russian agency that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and will email 677,775 users who followed the accounts, or retweeted or liked one of their tweets. [Bloomberg]…

And so forth. That’s more like it! Every one of those numbers is a grabber, encouraging us to read further.

I mean, really: 86 Chinese people have had their genes “edited”? How many does it take before they can assemble a Chinese version of the X Men?

8 thoughts on “SOME numbers are interesting, and significant

  1. Norm Ivey

    I’m not sure what the Chinese have in mind–perhaps a squad of super soldiers like Captain America. I think (and hope) that gene editing will be the eventual cure for cancer. Replace defective genes with good genes and cancer goes away.

    Do you suppose any of the nearly 700,000 Twitterers will believe Twitter when they tell them they’ve been lied to?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I hate to admit this, but I don’t grok what “gene editing” is. How is such a thing possible?

      Say you take a cell from my body, do something to alter the genes in that cell, and put the cell back. It’s still just one of billions of cells, the rest of which have not been altered — so how does it have any effect.

      Is there some central switching station in the body where you can flip a switch and affect ALL my body’s cells? If so, how does THAT work? Or is it possible to trigger a domino effect in all my cells?

      I don’t get it…

      1. Norm Ivey

        I don’t fully understand it, either, but I trust those who do. (I trust them to understand it–not necessarily how it will be used.) Genes replicate themselves, so if you alter a gene at the right place, the replaced gene will replicate itself. It operates on the same principle as cancer except that it’s a desirable mutation. At its most basic, it can be used to do things like select eye color or other hereditary features. At its most beneficial it can be used to weed out hereditary diseases–possibly things like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and cancer.

        It’s very similar to the GMOs some folks are up in arms about in their food. Some may be harmful; others are beneficial (or benign). It really depends on what’s being modified.

        1. Claus2

          Interesting, I said almost the exact same thing at the exact same time… since I’m on permanent moderated status we’ll see if Brad approves mine or comes back and says someone already said what I just said so it’s denied. I’ve only been here a couple years, one day I suspect I’ll get open commenting like everyone else.

      2. Claus2

        It’s what turned Bill Baxby into the Incredible Hulk. His anger gene triggered the rest of his genes and it caused him to turn into a green Lou Ferigno.

  2. Claus2

    I believe we’re just at the beginning of gene modification. If you have a family history of cancer and a member of your family tests positive for the defective gene, and there’s a known gene modification repair… do you go through with it or risk getting cancer? What about other serious disabling diseases… Autism, Cystic Fibrosis, Chron’s Disease, Down’s Syndrome, etc…

    It’s only a matter of time before we will be able to custom build children… I want a 6’3″ male with blue eyes and blonde hair, or a 5’8″, brunette, female, with green eyes. I’m willing to be the technology is already here or we’re close to having it.

    1. Mark Stewart

      I would bet the opposite; yes, we are only at the beginning. No, we are far, far away from the knowledge to impact this without levering that. It’s going to be a rough ride.

      1. Richard

        The FDA will hold back progress as usual. What difference does it matter for those who have no other option than a trial? Ask them, they’ll volunteer to be guinea pigs.


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