top of page
  • Julian Dowse

Playing the Percentages

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

I have always believed that 95% of people do the right thing 95% of the time. There are probably many professions-barristers, CEOs, School leaders, especially Deputy Principals, and emergency doctors-who may feel that their lives are overly burdened by managing the actions and consequences of the careless 5%. Nevertheless, this percentage formula is one of my golden rules.

Our community depends on this formula working:

  • 95% of people pay their taxes and file annual returns, even at their cost and inconvenience;

  • 95% of people, and hopefully more, vaccinate their children and ensure they commence their education;

  • 95% of workers and managers seek to exercise their best judgement and efforts. In my profession of teaching, one is heartened that even the most experienced of teachers are always searching for “the next best lesson”;

  • 95% or more stand respectfully in queues and do not engage in car park or road rage; and

  • 95% of people use their phones and computers sensibly.

In the sporting world the formula seems to apply also.

95% of tennis players who hold their serve more than their opponent and win more points in a match are victorious, although there are exceptions. In one of the Men’s Semi-Finals at Wimbledon in 1991 Michael Stich beat Stefan Edberg in four sets and Edberg never lost his serve!

95% of AFL teams who have more scoring shots and goals win games. Again, there have been exceptions, often in Grand Finals. Veteran Essendon fans still can not fathom that their team lost the 1968 Grand Final to Carlton after kicking 8.5 but losing to Carlton’s 7.14. In 1998, North Melbourne had the same number of scoring shots as Adelaide, but lost 8.22 to 15.15. Most recently and bizarrely, Geelong kicked 11.23 in the 2008 Grand Final to lose to Hawthorn’s 18.7.

In cricket and baseball, you have to have more runs and win more innings to win!

95% or more of athletes do not take performance enhancing drugs. Apart from the sinister era in the 1970s when steroid saturated athletes from the Soviet bloc destroyed fair competition at the Olympics and the Armstrong anni horribilli years at the Tour de France that destroyed the credibility of cycling, most athletes seek to achieve the best of themselves without chemical assistance.

In politics, the rule also holds up.

95% or more of the time, elections are won in Australia by the political party or coalition of parties that gain a greater percentage of the vote, be it first past the post or two-party preferred in. Again, there are exceptions: in 1990 the ALP retained government with 49.9 % of the two-party preferred vote, compared to the Coalition’s 50.1, and in 1998 the Coalition returned the favour winning government with 49.82% of the two-party preferred vote compared to the ALP’s 50.98%.

In America, the rule also holds up, well nearly. 53 out of its 58 Presidential elections have been won by the candidate who won the popular vote as well as the Electoral College vote. The five exceptions were in 1824, 1876, 1888 , 2000 and 2016.

Usually, the percentages play to the community’s favour.

Sadly, this week the percentages have played out against Australia in our continuing battle against Covid-19, especially in Victoria.

Putting aside the Bunnings proselytizers refusing to wear masks, my sense is that 95% and more of Victorians have sought to comply as best they can with Covid-19 restrictions.

However, when a handful of quarantine security guards breach what appear to be close to 100% of all minimum obligations, most of us are in trouble.

Similarly, and even more inexplicably when 25% of people who had contracted the virus refuse to stay home and self-quarantine the consequences are grim.

Victoria is now to enter a ‘Stage 4’ lockdown for a period of six weeks. All Victorians will be enduring significant disruptions to their educational, social , cultural and economic way of life because of the transgressions of remarkably few. All school students will be taught on-line. Weddings will be banned during this time. The pubs and clubs have closed. Welcome to Covid-19 Calvinism!

The corona virus has thrown into stark relief the choices governments and societies have to make.

On a range of issues, they have to play the percentages.

What percentage of JobKeeper financial support should be retained after September?

What percentage should the JobSeeker payment be permanently increased by after September?

What is an acceptable level of debt as a percentage of our Gross Domestic Product?

Every decision is a trade-off.

What percentage of economic ruination will be allowed before governments decide that the community must, subject to sensible restrictions, resume as close to full economic activity as possible? Crowds may be off the agenda at Victorian sporting events, theatres and cinemas for the foreseeable future, but when will workplaces be allowed to be populated again?

Gigi Foster is a Professor at the Business School at the University of New South Wales. Educated in America, she has an academic background in ethics. In recent weeks Professor Foster has stirred controversy with her percentage analyses of various aspects of the corona virus. She has asked at what point will governments relax social restrictions if they realise the economic and/or human costs of these limitations are greater than their benefits. Professor Foster has argued that governments must recognise that the percentage of lives saved by restrictions may be eclipsed by the percentage of lives lost or seriously affected by mental illness and/or economic despair generated by the restrictions, notwithstanding the absence of a vaccine.

Confronting stuff, but sadly it is not academic.

Road trauma surgeons have often said that the road toll could be reduced by 80% if men under the age of 26 were prevented from driving, saving governments millions in hospital costs and the families of those killed on the roads immeasurable trauma and suffering. However, the political and philosophical percentages do not marry up with the medical statistics.

To prevent 100% of young men from driving is seen as too great an attack on the basic freedoms that our society grants to its citizens.

The percentage of Australians who will suffer influenza this year will, like our Consumer Price Index, be in a deflationary cycle. This is because widespread social distancing, practised because of the pandemic, together with a greater percentage of Australians being vaccinated against the flu, will reduce its outbreak. This was the only good news Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer had to deliver at today’s ‘Lockdown’ press conference. For the record, I note that the Premier ditched his North Face jacket for today’s stern announcement.

Back to the flu, as it were. In a year free from a pandemic, our society acknowledges and accepts that every year a percentage of those most vulnerable to influenza will perish from it, notwithstanding the availability of a vaccine.

Further choices must be made post-Covid. What percentage increase in the funding for the aged-care sector and in the wages of those who work in aged-care homes will be required to ensure that the living and working standards of residents and employees will minimise the risk of recent outbreaks of contagion?

In years free of pandemics, we do not lock down our society even we know avoidable deaths will take place on the roads, that poor education and choices will lead to early mortality amongst many and relative poverty will cause disease and premature death. We continue to function, hoping that we can keep these percentages as low as possible.

The pandemic has ushered in an anxious new world where epidemiology must meet and be placed alongside sociology, politics and philosophy.

Boris Johnson, six kilograms lighter since his brush with Covid mortality, has decreed that the percentage of Britons who are clinically obese is too high. We allow freedom of eating choices, but Boris’ government is to legislate to ban advertising of fast foods at certain hours, ensure calorie information is provided to consumers at the point of purchase, and encourage greater physical activity. Are these moral choices or is the percentage of Britain’s National Health Budget that is being spent on managing the by-products of obesity, especially rampaging levels of Diabetes 2, unacceptably high?

This week the Australian government announced new percentage figures to be attained in its wish to ‘Close the Gap’ of indigenous disadvantage. Again, what costs and resources can be justified in an effort to obtain these required percentages?

Ask any teacher of a Year 12 student in Australia and they will comment on the great contradiction of the final year of Australia’s secondary education system. Every school seeks to develop a holistic secondary graduate, infused with knowledge, optimism and competence. Yet, for all of these hopes teachers are constantly reminded by the students themselves that they will judge the ‘success’ of their education on the ATAR percentage they receive. Unfortunately, students sense that this percentage will uniquely determine, more than anything else, their future happiness.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb was, as crude as it may seem, ultimately based on percentages. He said his decision was based on advice on how many American troops were likely to die if the Pacific war continued without an immediate Japanese surrender. Harry S said that once he knew the numbers of death would be immense, he had no option but to bomb Hiroshima to save the greatest percentage of American lives possible.

When Douglas McArthur offered Truman the chance to let him destroy China at the outbreak of the Korean War, Truman did the sums on the possibility of a nuclear Armageddon bred out of the Cold War. He had no option but to dismiss one of America’s most decorated soldiers. The percentage risk of McArthur annihilating the world was just too great.

Maybe George Eliot in her justly famous Middlemarch was, at a subconscious level, a proponent of the 95% rule. It is powerfully observed in the novel that,

“…the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

She is right. The dutiful, obedient, positive, faithful and productive lives led by over 95% of us have underwritten the progress of our society. Generation after generation the legacies of these lives have been the foundation of the emergence of societies based on the rule of law. We believe and expect the rules that protect us and grant us our freedoms will apply to all. The tombs that one can visit around the world-those of Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung and Napoleon-are memorials to those who sought to destroy the decency of millions of humans in pursuit of their vanity.

Tragically, there are too many people lying in unvisited tombs around the world, but not for the reasons Eliot suggested. They are there because of a pernicious pandemic. The reduction of the number of Covid tombs and the preservation of social and economic confidence has become the priority of our governments. The decisions they make will be based on the percentage of social utility their policies will deliver. We are, indeed, all part of the same whole. Ironically, to remain whole, we have to decide what parts of the whole we can either live with or forego. Pending the arrival of the required vaccine, we must calculate the percentages to prevent our society becoming either permanently paralysed or forever fractious.

Julian Dowse

2nd August, 2020

9 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page