Don't Buy the Numbers
Entry for 2016-06-17

Had Albert Einstein grown up in the hills around Kittanning, he might not have had to wait until he was 26 years old to discover his Special Theory of Relativity.

In Einstein's day, it had already been shown that light beams always arrive at 186,300 miles per second. Unlike a fist, light strikes your eye at the same speed whether you're headed toward it or running away from it -- which seems impossible, so everyone ignored it. Einstein decided to trust that one number and throw out all the others. Soon he had his theory, and scientists were busy changing their numbers all over the world.

In Kittanning, it was easier. At age 12, I coasted down the West Kittanning hill on my bicycle, which was equipped with a highly excitable Monkey Ward's speedometer. The needle was quivering around 40 miles per hour when my father passed me in his car, shaking his finger. Later, he informed me that he had been going only 25 m.p.h. when he passed. There it was -- the theory of relative velocity, according to which 25 is greater than 40.

The Arithmetic of War

More important, it taught me to be distrustful of numbers. At last I realized how wrong I had been to think we were going to lose World War II because of slow airplanes -- which had been my consuming worry since age nine.

At that time, wars were still okay, and our side always won. Our bubble gum cards didn't show baseball players; they featured ships and tanks and fighter planes like the Grumman P-47 Thunderbolt, which looked thick and strong and could go 400 m.p.h. The P-51 was our fastest plane. My cards said it had a maximum speed of 500 m.p.h. But another card showed the Japanese Zero, looking skinny and dumb, without any fangs or lightning bolts painted on it, and yet the card listed a top speed of 525 m.p.h. In a dogfight, with a Jap on your tail, 25 m.p.h. could make all the difference.

When we won the war despite all this, I should have suspected the treachery of numbers, but it is not easy to shake a superstition when the whole world believes it. In high school algebra, one number was the right answer and all the others were wrong. And in the school library, there was a book filled with fascinating figures: The biggest this, the smallest that, the highest mountain, the oldest tree, the fastest animal, and the dumbest computer -- an omen if ever there was one. The book told of a wealthy hobbyist who had sunk $1.5 million into building a computer that could add one plus one but was stumped by one plus two.

Sorry, Wrong Numbers

It was such enthralling stuff that I unwittingly memorized all the numbers and have been trying ever since to forget them. They were all wrong. The oldest tree is not 4,500 years old. It's since been discovered that some of California's bristlecone pines are 5,000 to 10,000 years old, and a box huckleberry in central Pennsylvania is 12,000 years old. I don't believe that, either.

Nor does the deerbot fly -- as the book declared -- travel at 810 miles an hour, which would be faster than the speed of sound. That claim has since been dismissed as the raving of an overwrought entomologist. Anyone who hears a fly make a sonic boom and is simultaneously bitten can be excused if his needle goes off the graph; but then, who knows if the whale shark is really 40 feet long? Wouldn't a person close enough to measure a whale shark tend to become even more excited than one bitten by a fast fly?

These are not isolated incidents. Most of the numbers in the world are wrong and always have been. Government agencies ceaselessly and shamelessly revise their figures. Scientists and engineers "refine" theirs. Economists "massage" their data and finally turn the charts upside-down or sideways to make the numbers match reality. Banks are never wrong, of course, but tellers are always short. Make one tiny mistake in your checkbook and every number from then on is wrong. Let your watch get one minute fast and it will tell you a lie a minute -- 1,440 wrong numbers in the next 24 hours.

Math and Science

When was it any different? Eratosthenes deduced the circumference of the earth, missed it by 3,880 miles, and everyone had wrong numbers for the size of the planet for the next 1,800 years. Then French astronomer Jean Picard calculated a more accurate measurement, which was also wrong but close enough for Isaac Newton to use in figuring out the wrong numbers for gravitational attraction of the planets.

I once heard a physics professor explain how small a molecule is. He said if the molecules on the head of a pin were each enlarged to a grain of sand, there would be enough sand to fill a three-foot by three-foot ditch from New York to San Francisco. Sure. If you had performed that calculation and your ditch stretched from New York to, say, Yuba City ... wouldn't you be tempted to fudge a few miles to the coast?

An astronomer glibly assures us that there are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. He knows that if he's missed it by 20 billion, nothing bad will happen, as it would if he missed his income by 900 on his tax return. When Jacques Cousteau, on one of his TV specials, figured out before your eyes that there are a billion toads in Lake Titicaca, you could be practically certain he was off by at least three.

Still, we live in a numerical age. It began in 1652 when Bishop James Ussher of Dublin computed the exact age of the earth to be 5,656 years. Creeping number supremacy advanced, largely unnoticed, until 1948 -- the year Dewey was elected President. Then computers took over, dealing out large numbers too fast to be caught cheating.

The problem with computers is that they're gullible. They believe everything they're told. When an engineer, bureaucrat, or marketing director feeds in a big number, the computer can't cock an eyebrow and say: "Yeah? Who counted?"

Numberful Life

There are 30,000 subspecies of birds in Europe and North America, living at a density of one to four birds per acre. Who counted? The largest iceberg ever reported was 208 miles long, 60 miles wide, and 200 feet thick. Who plunged into the icy deep with a yardstick? Mt. Everest is 29,141 feet high. I'll believe the 29,000, maybe the 100, possibly the 40. But forty-one? Come on, guys.

And of course the human body is 95 percent water. Ha! In this age, water isn't 95 percent water.

You can believe the numbers if you want to, but I'm from Kittanning. I trust figures such as how many cupcakes there are for supper. I'll also believe an exact phone number. But I'm not going to cower at 13.2 percent inflation for the year because that includes housing and I didn't buy any. For unemployment statistics, I keep track of how many jobs I have, one or none. And I don't care how many stars there are in the Milky Way as long as there are enough peanuts in the Snickers.

As for all the rest of the numbers, I want to know who counted. I have a contour map from no less formidable an authority than the U.S. Geological Survey, showing that my house is 1,270 feet above sea level. But the day they report a 1,269-foot tidal wave headed inland, you'll know where to find me. In the attic. Standing on a chair. Wearing an inner tube.
(from Pennsylvania Illustrated, February 1980)