Gasoline, numeracy, and journalism

Californians use more gas than any other state.

Californians use less gas than inhabitants of 44 other states.

Those are both true statements (according to a story in this morning’s Chronicle), but only one of them is meaningful. Fortunately, although the story included them in the wrong order, it did include both. Unfortunately, most stories of this sort only include the equivalent of the first.

Glossing the two statements:

Taken as a whole, California consumes more gasoline than any other state.

Californians consume less gasoline per capita than inhabitants of 44 other states.

Statements in the first category are almost always meaningless, because they leave out the key fact (which people may “know” but tend to be fuzzy about): California has more people than any other state–and not just a few more. 2004 estimates are that California has nearly 60% more inhabitants than the second most populous state: just under 35.9 million people compared to Texas’ 22.5 million.

Thus, saying that California has the most X of whatever is usually a waste of ink, unless you’re comparing it to countries (e.g., “the sixth largest economy in the world”–compared to nations, not other states).

The second statement is interesting, particularly given that California is a long state whose inhabitants are used to driving long distance, with most cities really not designed for pedestrians. It suggests that all those Priuses and Civic Hybrids and regular Civics and the rest really do make a difference.

(Similarly, despite the fabled affluence of Californians and our reliance on air conditioners and all that other stuff, the 2004 figures for electricity consumption are pretty startling:

Residential: California average, 2367 KWH per capita. U.S. average: 4405 KWH per capita

Total (including industrial and transportation): CA, 7041 KWH per cap, U.S.: 12081 KWH per cap.

Interestingly, the percentage of all electricity devoted to residential use isn’t much different: 34% in California, 36.5% U.S. as a whole.)

Updated a few minutes later: One other calculation would make the energy-efficiency of Californians (drummed into us for years, successfully, apparently) a little more obvious. Namely, taking residential power consumption for the rest of the country on a per capita basis.

That yields 4688 KWH per capita.

Which means that Californians, on average, use barely over half as much electricity as non-Californians in the U.S. (50.4%).

Recycling numbers would be interesting (Mountain View substantially exceeds California’s 50%-diversion target, that is, manages to recycle considerably more than 50% of what was formally trash), but I haven’t looked for them.

3 Responses to “Gasoline, numeracy, and journalism”

  1. Kelly G says:

    Those darn statistics!
    As somone who used to fall for these statistics tricks, I love Robert Niles’ site What Every Writer Should Know About Statistics.
    It provides intro through sem-advanced level statistics. He also points out common thought errors within each of the sections.

  2. Scott P says:

    But the fact that “Californians use more gas than any other state” is also important, because California has different environmental laws than other states. So the volume of gas that must be refined is important when you consider cost per person when the cost of refining gas in California is higher than in other states. It may be that Californians consume less gasoline per capita than inhabitants of 44 other states, but take up more resources anyway because special refineries must be built just for them, which requires manpower just for them, which requires gas for commuters going to those refineries. And it would make sense that California would use less electricity per person if you consider that the weather is milder in big-metropolis California than in big-metropolis other places, whether or not the people of California actually keep their airconditioners on a higher temperature.

  3. walt says:

    Scott–I would note that “different” means “tougher” in every case I know of. By my standards, that’s a good thing. You’re not going to have one refinery for the entire nation anyway, and I’d love to see a realistic analysis showing that higher environmental standards really constitute an overall waste of fuel. I do find it interesting that “national conformity” is almost always used as a standard for reducing environmental protections, or banking protections, or privacy protections, not improving them.

    As for milder weather, true enough–but a lot of cold-climate people use some fuel other than electricity for heating (as do we, for that matter), and I’m not sure you can explain a 2:1 difference that way.

    (A lot of us, and “us” does include me, don’t keep our air conditioners on a higher temperature because we don’t have them. That’s a different discussion. California’s really encouraged energy conservation, and the numbers even within California show that it’s succeeded. Not as much as might be desirable, but a lot.)