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.

2 comments:

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

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

    ReplyDelete