More People Are Dying Than Ever Before!: Facts Need Context

It always bugs me when facts are presented without the appropriate context. One of the worst offenders is when today’s numbers of a set population are compared to previous numbers in history. For example, an often repeated fact during the current National Human Trafficking Awareness Month and today’s National Human Trafficking Awareness Day is that there are more slaves today than at any time in history.

That’s true. But it shouldn’t be shocking. There are also more people today than at any time in history, by an order of magnitude. Which makes stats like this deceiving. A straight numbers comparison doesn’t give you a clear picture of what’s really happening. Slavery as a percentage of the total population could also be at the lowest point in history.

The shock and awe of the fact doesn’t stem from the injustice of slavery, it stems from population growth. More people means more slaves. A lower percentage than ever, but a higher total number than ever. It’s kind of like arguing that more people die in car accidents today than in any time in human history, so we really need to care about car accidents. That might be true (I can’t find the numbers to back it up), but if it is, it’s only because there are more people driving cars now than ever before so there’s likely going to be more deaths than ever before.

The current world population is around 6.7 billion. There are currently 27 million slaves. That’s .4% of the population. In 1860 there were 31 million people in the United States and 3.9 million slaves. That’s 12.6% of the population. That percentage also varies by state. In 1770 slaves made up 61% of the population of South Carolina. Throughout history slaves as a percentage of total population varied from one-third in many African countries to 30-50% in Korea, 25-33% in Thailand and Burma, 50% in Iraq, 25% of ancient Rome, etc. (stats pulled from Wikipedia) Those numbers are always less than 27 million, but the total percentage of slavery is what’s really shocking.

Slavery and human trafficking are an abhorrent evil that need to be stopped. But with all due respect to the cause, I don’t think giving facts without context is helpful. There have probably never been 27 million slaves at any other time in history, but there have also never been 6.7 billion people.

The same approach is often used when Christians talk about persecution. There is an often quoted stat that more Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than all previous centuries. Nevermind that the world population in the 20th century was greater than in any previous century. Also forget that people became efficiently brutal at killing in the 20th century, which allows the numbers for these kinds of atrocities to become staggering (just ask the victims of the Holocaust).

I don’t mean to belittle these causes. On the contrary, I think stating the facts in context would lend greater credibility to the cause. It may not have the same shock and awe, but it forces those advocating for the cause to build their case on a stronger foundation. Evil is evil. Slavery should not be allowed to exist at 40%, 4% or .4%.

If we really want to get worked up, I could point out that more people are dying today than at any time in history.

One thought on “More People Are Dying Than Ever Before!: Facts Need Context”

  1. I see your point and often this is right on the money, particularly as political factions “spin” the news for their own benefit. On the other hand, sometimes it simply isn’t relevant. In cases where many people think that something has been eliminated entirely, the news is that the thing exists, not how many there used to be. For example, many people believe that Small Pox has been eradicated but it would be newsworthy that even one person in your community had contracted it and irrelevant that millions have died from in in previous centuries. Likewise, if the general population believes that slavery has been eradicated, the news isn’t that it is less than it used to be, but rather, that slavery still exists and in far greater numbers than we might have imagined. Certainly perspective is important, but the challenge is to make our perspective relevant.

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