"Bet you a million!" "This tax bill will save the American people $4 billion (or is it trillion) over the next 5 years." "The 6 billionith baby was born today." "The universe is 4 billion (or 3,000) years old."

In the United States and much of the rest of the developed world, it is accepted that when people use numbers they mean what they say. That is more often wrong than right. The examples above are just some of the many you can find every day. Practically all very large numbers are at best good estimates. In many cases they are wild guesses, and in much of the world (and in the concept of some American politicians) simply figures picked out of the air.

The first example is commonly heard when children argue. They don't know what a million is (and today probably say billion or trillion) - they simply mean "a lot." The fact is that through history most people have not been able to deal with numbers higher than 20. Some can deal with 100, or even 1,000, but few indeed can comprehend anything larger. Genesis is replete with obvious examples of large numbers (number of deaths in a battle, the ages of Methuselah and others who lived before Abram) that simply mean "a lot," or "more than the last one," or "the most of all." (How do you calculate your age if there is no fixed calendar system, and no birth certificate?) (But for the Intelligent Design crowd, we have another explanation from Jim A. Cornwell. In his The Alpha and the Omega published in 1995 he says "I believe that God intentionally made these dates hard to determine so that no one could determine an accurate length of the fourteen generations of Matthew 1:17 or the extra generation of Luke 3:36.")

Well, at least engineers are accurate when they use numbers. Yes, but not always. How otherwise do we explain bridges (e.g. in Rosslyn, Va) that do not quite connect, or spacecraft which crash into Mars because (reportedly) one group of engineers was using meters and another feet.

A more mundane example of untruth in numbers is to be found in the clothing store. A woman might require an 8 in one brand and a 10 in another. Cheap T-shirts available in M, L, XL and XXL may all be the same size. That happened to us in November 2000, in Belgium, and is a wonderful example of how much of the population of the world does not comprehend that numbers are important. The workers in some third world country are told they have to produce the shirt in batches of so many of each size. And they are given the size labels. They make lots of shirts the same size, and then sew in the labels to create the batches required.

Now government officials and reporters around the world know that Americans and other "developed" people like numbers. To please the Americans, who after are can be the source of riches, they use numbers. Any numbers.

But Certified Public Accountants get it right, right? Ha. They get it right much of the time, but only in the context of an extremely complex set of conventions created mostly for tax purposes. The treatment of income streams and the valuation of fixed assets and land are at best arbitrary. What is the value of the Mall in Washington? And what about things not counted by the CPA's? What is the value of a government that kept war away from the lower 48 for 136 years while much of the rest of the world suffered horrors with millions dead and infrastructure destroyed?

The American fixation with numbers feeds on itself. Graph the estimates made for future government deficits/surpluses over the last five years. Compare the estimates two years, one year, and six months in advance with the final results. The numbers are all over the place. Compare the figures of the prophets of Reaganomics (falling deficits) and the results (soaring deficits). It is plain that nobody has a crystal ball - even though George W Bush claims there is one.

Does that mean numbers should be ignored? Certainly not. The growth in population, increase in proportion of the population over retirement age, increase in size and duration of the ozone hole, amount of government and trade deficit, are all matters where numbers are very important. At the very least, the numbers say "hey, something is happening here that should be looked at." Just remember that most of the numbers are not truly accurate, and that projections of the future outside the physical sciences are often simply guesses.

last update 20 September 2005

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