Monday, 26 September 2011

Happy Monday - Your Number's Up

"When Pope Clement VI asked his advisers how many people had died in the Black Death they told him the total worldwide was 42,836,486. This was, of course, a complete guess. In 1349, most of the world remained undiscovered and the rest was plunged into administrative chaos. What the Pope's advisers were telling him was 'A Hell of a lot, Your Holiness, so stay away from the poor for a month or so.'

They were employing the Frederick Forsyth technique of storytelling, which is based on the idea that if you lard anything with unnecessary technical detail, people are more likely to believe in it. If I told you, for example, that I was writing this at gunpoint, you'd probably scoff. But if I told you I was looking down the barrel of a Smith and Wesson .45 calibre revolver with a silencer you might just believe me; unless, of course, you were enough of an arms enthusiast to know that you can't put a silencer on a revolver.

Anyway you're not reading this to be made a fool of, so here are some interesting facts: you have 1.5 million hairs on your head, 40,000 hairs on your eyebrows and 70 million hairs, most of them invisible, on your body as a whole.

Actually, this is all nonsense as well. I don't know how hairy you are, and it's all fantastically irrelevant. The point is that, even when one is primed to be sceptical, it's very easy for someone to bamboozle you with detail, and among the most effective details are numbers.

...Statistics on how many poor people there are have not been collected since 1985. When such figures are collected, the ploys by which they are kept out of journalists' hands would not fool even Pope Clement VI. Sir Douglas Black's damning 1980 report on class-related health inequalities was limited to 260 copies and published on an August bank holiday. The depressing Health and Social Services report of 1986 was published the day before the Royal Wedding, and last year's Budget Day was chosen as the date on which to publish embarrassing figures on hospital waiting lists and homelessness."

Dr John Collee Observer 4th Nov. 1990


  1. Nice one........when ever there is a disaster or anything exciting I always keep an eye on what government is up to. They are past masters at sliding things through on the blind side.

  2. Now you've got me thinking - why can't you fit a silencer to a revolver?

  3. At least I know now why I can't ever keep the eyebrows under control.

  4. Who was it that said it bes? Mark Twain maybe? "There's lies, damn lies, and statistics."

  5. I knew it was a windup the second it said I had 1.5m hairs on my head. I should be so lucky.


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