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Insignificance

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Insignificance is the quality of lacking importance or substantial meaning. The concept is important to rational thinking.

Statistical insignificance[edit]

See main article: Statistical significance

Let's say a poll was conducted: one thousand people from across the United States are asked who they plan on voting for in the next presidential election. 999 of those people pick one of the viable candidates, and one person says "Mickey Mouse". If this poll precisely matched the country-wide percentages, it would be mathematically correct to say, "According to our poll, of 50 million registered voters in the next election, 50,000 will vote for Mickey Mouse." In this case, however, the probability of not matching the country-wide percentages is so high that .1% can be said to be statistically insignificant. Polls will usually report such anomolies as part of a margin of error.

The significance of "insignificant"[edit]

In science[edit]

In properly-conducted science, there should be no such thing as insignificance. That is to say, if something is observed and can be repeated, then it is irresponsible to ignore the observation. If something is observed and cannot be repeated, it is equally irresponsible to not determine why it cannot be repeated (usually the answer is due to some sort of error or anomaly in the process, like a contaminated solution).

In human rights[edit]

Human rights is an area where the concept of "insignificant" matters greatly. The United Nations takes documented pains to distinguish between acts of genocide and genocide itself, as defined by the number of human lives taken or the impact on the culture itself. Another question the UN asks is as to how significant the act is to the rest of the world. An individual who has lost his entire family, for example, is irrelevant to the UN distinction—such an atrocity, while certainly qualifying as mass murder or a very egregious disaster, would not qualify as genocide.

In politics[edit]

"Significant" and "insignificant" voters, polls, and responses are tossed around by politicians all the time. A poll is easily deemed "insignificant" when the numbers do not turn out the way other polls have, so the politician can dismiss it, even if the questions are relevant. A perfect example of these are straw polls, which are held at various times during election candidacy runs and only include the small cross-section of voters who happen to be there at the time. In 2011, more than once candidate Ron Paul was deemed winner of a Republican primary straw poll only to have the event organizers throw out the results and award it to another candidate. Straw polls themselves, while making good headlines, are of questionable significance in themselves: many results get ignored by the mainstream media as they ultimately have no bearing on the final nomination.

Issues that matter to one state but not another may be deemed "insignificant" because, even if your particular problem is resolved, it will not help me win since you make up a small portion of the voters who will vote for me. More troubling yet is when voters and voting populations are cast as insignficiant, because not only are their problems not going to be addressed, they themselves carry no real political weight, regardless of how significant and serious their issues might be. Until the 1970's women were, by and large, insignificant voters. In the United States, black voters are being cast into "insignificant" as a minority as politics focuses on Hispanics both as a source of votes and as a political debate topic. Gays have been and continue to be insignificant to politicians, even gay politicians.

In human life[edit]

Pro-life activists who want to outlaw all abortions, even in the cases of rape and incest, will argue that the number of pregnancies from from rape and incest are statistically insignificant. This, however forces us to ask, "Okay, so how many women have to be raped before those pregnancies are significant?" To the women who are faced with these difficult decisions, their own pregnancy is very significant.

Proponents of capital punishment will make similar arguments against the outcries in defense of the executed who were later exonerated by additional testimony or evidence, saying the number of the executed guilty is much larger than the executed innocent. So the question is, again, "How many innocent men have to be executed before those executions become significant?"

In music[edit]

Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan both offered the question as to how many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man, among other questions.[1]


In the world[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Composition and division

A single grain of sand on a beach is insignificant compared to the beach. Even knowing the exact number of grains of sand on a beach is of much insignificance to almost everyone. Knowing that the beach is there and that it performs specific ecological/geological duties is of some significance, particularly to the people who sit on the beach to relax or own property near the beach and don't want to see it washed away.

Global warming denialists will argue that one person, one polluter or one country cannot make a significant difference to the climate of the entire world. They look at the exhaust from their car and the carbon footprint of their home as insignificant details, forgetting that there are seven billion other humans on the planet, many of them contributing to the same large outputs of carbons into the atmosphere.

In the universe[edit]

Douglas Adams probably says it best in describing a torture device called a Total Perspective Vortex:

When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here."[2]

For all of the unreasonable instances of anarchy, inequality and hate, and all of the struggles against homophobia, genocide and pollution, all seven billion of us humans could annihilate each other and all the living creatures on the planet into extinction and it would amount to less than a fart in the perspective of the entire universe.

Interestingly, many of the same people who ignore the significance of a genocidal civil war in a country they've never heard of, or the number of homeless or undocumented individuals who want to contribute to society, or the long-term environmental impact of a few million gallons of crude oil dumped into the ocean, are also quite preoccupied with asserting their own significance in the world. Some people appear to do outrageous things, make outrageous claims or authorize outrageous actions in order to ensure their own legacy or garner the approval of others. The irony appears to be lost on them, and humility is apparently not part of their personalities.

It can be argued that the lack of humility/fear of insignificance comes from assertions in the Bible that God knows, watches and cares for all of us, whether we want it or not. The fact that passages from the book were included to assuage any such fears is most likely not insignificant. The realization of insignificance can be quite daunting to newly-converted atheists who grew up believing they would never be alone.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.
  2. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"