What is the world’s most quoted, but least true, statistic? I’ve long been fascinated by the category of instrumental facts. Of the species of “1 in x people are a Chinese farmer” or “Eskimos have y words for snow,” these need not be exactly true, or indeed actually true—but they generally must plausibly illustrate some wider truth. David Aaronovitch cites another today, in a post bouncing off last Saturday’s Convention on Modern Liberty, an impressive gathering of more than a thousand liberals in central London. He writes: “the mystery stat was sitting on one of our Times blogs and read “the average Brit is caught on security cameras some 300 times a day” and, God knows why, I just decided to chase the number down and find out where it came from.” The number turns out to have been made up.
In a sense, this is beside the point. The point of such statistics is to give the sense of “a lot”—lots of people are Chinese farmers, Eskimos probably do have quite a lot of words for snow, and so forth. But Aaronovitch’s post reminded me of two other similar investigations. The first was written some years ago, by Clay Shirky. He cites “the phrase ‘Half the world has never made a phone call’ …. an urban legend, a widely believed but unsubstantiated story about the nature of the world. It has appeared countless times over the last decade… despite being obviously wrong.” The second, by London internet guy and designer Phil Gifford, investigated the commonly re-told notion of some percentage, usually quite a high percentage, of Americans who don’t have a passport. I wondered if anyone had seen any others?