02 June 2010

"France has more moustaches than Norway!"

The American Scene | Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry | France has more moustaches than Norway!

I just made that up.

But the great thing about numbers is that you don’t even need to make them up to make them say anything you want them to say.

A recent meme is the revelation that India has more cell phones than toilets. For some reason, this was met with consternation. This op-ed by the New York Times’ Roger Cohen (h/t the wonderful Dayo Olopade) uses this figure as a hook for a broad rumination of the comparative merits of markets and governments in providing utilities and a ringing endorsement of a rebalancing of our resources away from markets and toward government. Which makes sense: if markets are better at providing infrastructure than government, then we should rely on government for more of our infrastructure. Or something. [...]

India has more cell phones than toilets! So? I’m serious: so? In all the discussions I’ve seen of this fact, I haven’t seen anyone point out that, normally, toilets are shared and cell phones are not.
This really gets me too. Why should these two numbers be related? The ratio of bobble-head dolls to nail clippers tells us about as much about a country's development.

Whenever you see someone incredulous that we have more X than Y you should ask what the "correct" ratio of X to Y is. 99 times out of 100 there is no correct ratio.* It's just people who want to freak out about something latching onto an observation with numbers in it because most people see numbers and promptly stop thinking.

* Actually you should do this even if it's there's just one number involved, not a ratio. You can't legitimately claim that a number is too high to too low without having an idea of what the "right" value is.


  1. France has more mustaches than Norway has mustaches? Or France has more mustaches than France has Norway?

  2. I have heard Franc'e Strategic Norway Reserves are running dangerously low.