Yesterday, I came across this lovely video clip of Aaron Sorkin’s recently premiered show, News Room (thanks, Matt Perkins). The clip features Jeff Daniel’s character unloading most eloquently on the topic of why America is no longer the Greatest period Country period on Earth period.
I saw the clip outside the context of the show, but it resonated with my own mixed feelings about the manifest greatness of my home country and my profound distaste for Nationalism in almost any form outside of the middle of the 19th century. I shared the clip because of the point it was making rather than because of any of the data it used to make that point (though Jeff Daniel’s delivery was certainly sparkly!).What emerged from sharing was a question of the requirement for factual accuracy in political fiction. To be clear, I don’t think it is required, strictly speaking: Jeff Daniel’s character’s use of inaccurate data may be an important plot point. It might tell us his character is hyperbolic, or misinformed, or reckless, or deceitful, or simply fallible – in the context of the story. But, to be fair, I didn’t reference the clip in the context of the story – I used it as an illustration of my political frustrations. And in that arena, factual accuracy is of cardinal importance.
Towards the end of accuracy, here are the assertions Jeff Daniel’s character makes in this scene, along with an assessment of the truth value of each. My list is derived from the helpful transcription by Michael Offutt.
With no further ado:
1. The United States ranks 7th in literacy worldwide.
This number is actually understated as far as I can determine. The 2009 PISA puts us at 14th place in terms of performance amongst participating countries, but other metrics (most of which seem to be based on the World Factbook’s dataset) put us in lower positions (see here and here as examples).
The other issue with this number is that it is based on elective self-evaluation, and that not every country participates — which makes comparison with the world as a whole rather difficult. However, these seem to be the best numbers available — keep that in mind for the next two items.
2. The United States ranks 27th in math worldwide.
Close but not quite: 25th in mathematics in the 2009 PISA evaluation.
3. 22nd in science.
Even more not quite: 17th in science in the 2009 PISA evaluation.
4. 49th in life expectancy
5. 178th in infant mortality
Whatever the reasons for the incorrect data in the script — perhaps a typo, perhaps an intentional flaw, perhaps intervention by divine or alien forces? — the correct number should almost certainly be somewhere in the 30s. Several sources I saw challenged the numbers reported by other countries as being “filtered” — I cannot evaluate that in the scope of this humble blog, obviously. However, it seems safe to generalize two things:
a) America is definitely not #1
b) America’s infant mortality rate isn’t terrible; it may be as much as twice as high as the rates found in comparable Northwest European countries, but it is certainly dramatically better than that preponderance of territory commonly referred to as the “Third” world.
6. 3rd in median household income
This is a bit sticky. The 2010 figures show us beating out Norway for the #2 spot by $100/household, a fraction. But wealth distribution is a mysterious thing: I haven’t heard of any really concise way of comparing distribution curves per country. The United States is unbelievably wealthy compared to other countries, but that’s partly because of the sheer size of its economy. In terms of GDP per capita, which I think is a more relevant number in many ways, we currently weigh in at #6.
7. 4th in labor force
Spot on. But not a particularly material metric to begin with.
8. 4th in exports
9. 1st in incarcerated citizens per capita
Unabashedly true. Congratulations, us!
10. 1st in adults who believe in angels
I was unable to find any comprehensive international comparisons for this figure. However, I did stumble across this article showing that, in a study by Baylor University, 55% of American respondents answered yes to the statement “I was protected from harm by a guardian angel.”
I had no idea guardian angels were such busy creatures.
11. 1st in defense spending, spending more than the next 26 countries combined; 25 of those other countries are US allies.
Another “close but no cigar” item. According to Wikipedia’s listing (derived from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s evaluation in 2011), the United States defense budget is only as large as the next 19 countries combined. Of those 19 countries, I am unable to confirm the ally status of several: China, of course, but also Brazil. Do we have an alliance with them???
Have you been keeping track? Here are the results:
Number of items that were outrageously misstated: 1
Number of items that were exaggerated: 5
Number of items that were correct (or within a reasonable range): 4
Number of items that couldn’t be resolved (i.e., the whole angel issue): 1
This scene, as dramatically sound and well acted as it may be, is factually unsound. If it were a boat, it would sink. If it were a house, it would collapse in 45 mile-per-hour winds. If it were a truck, it would probably be rotting in my five-acre backyard, right next to the old swing set. However, it is not any of these things: it is film. And as we all now, celluloid obeys none of the rules of the so called “real world.”
Of the eleven items, one is materially broken (infant mortality), and one is impossible to evaluate (angels), and several are misleading — violating the dictates of hard fact in favor of dramatic punch. Nevertheless, the point of the scene endures. There are very few metrics beyond military strength that would clearly underline the United States as the “greatest country on earth.” It is questionable whether the title possesses any merit of its own.
So this entire exercise in fact finding and comparison leads only to another question: by what criteria DO we evaluate ourselves, and how do we measure up?