Figures are Depressing

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Oct 11, 1947

Figures are Depressing 

I have been reading in the current “Listener” a rather alarming quotation from a recent report of the Bermondsey Public libraries.

“If,” said the report, “all the books used during the past year by readers in Bermondsey were put side by side along the pavement, they would stretch from Bermondsey Town Hall to Kew Gardens and would be a public nuisance.”

Wittily though this is said, I confess it gave me something of a shock.

For most of my life I had been firmly convinced that people read too few books and had been trying to persuade them to read more and more, yet here I was faced by the staggering fact that the inhabitants of one small segment of London were practically, as the saying is, reading their eyes out. And I have no doubt every other London borough could tell the same story.

On reflection, however, I begin to wonder whether what may be called bulk statements—statistics, for example—are not likely, even though true, to convey a false impression. Read the figures of the annual national drink bill, for instance—millions and millions and millions of pounds—and, unless you know them, you will hardly be able to resist the conclusion that the English public-houses must be haunts of almost perpetual drunkenness.

You will be especially easily persuaded of this, of course, if you forget that the national drink bill is for the most part not a drink bill at all but a taxation bill, and that it could be reduced to a fraction of its present size if the government ceased to tax liquor.

Even if the national consumption of strong drink—or rather of drink, that according to those who consume it, is not nearly so strong as it ought to be—is expressed in terms of gallons instead of money, however, the figures suggest that the national throat has a Gargantuan capacity for swallowing beer, wine and spirits morning, noon and night.

Look round the people you know, on the other hand, and you will realize that statistics though stat of sober fact do not convey to the imagination the sober facts about the sobriety of England, where the excessive drinkers are a mere handful.

At the same time, since bulk statements impress the imagination, it seems to me that the authorities might well make a good use of them just now for certain purposes.

Take our food rations. At present we are given the wrong kind of figures about them and are told that we must be restricted to a shillings worth of meat, an ounce or two of cheese, an ounce or two of butter, margarine and so forth a week; and, as a result of this, many people feel that they are being half starved.

How much more reassuring it would be if the ministry of food were to issue figures showing us the weight of all the food (including bread, sugar and jam) the ordinary citizen swallows, even under a system of rations and points, in the course of a year.

If we were told less about the little food we are getting and more about the enormous bulk each of us is getting through between New Year’s Day and December 31, most of us, would cease to think of ourselves as underfed and would begin to wonder whether we were not guilty of the sin of gluttony.

This would lead to a greater improvement of the national morale, for it is much more cheering to think that one is eating too much than to feel that one is eating too little.

It must be admitted, however, that figures as a rule are rather depressing. How dreadful, for example, it is to reflect on the amount of time the ordinary man spends according to statistics in sleep.

Eight hours a night sounds modest enough, but when a statician adds up the nightly figures for sleep to cover a lifetime, what sluggards—what waster of precious hours—we all seem!

I, for instance, can be shown on this basis to have been asleep for nearly 23 years. And the time I have spent in bed is longer than that, for I lie in bed till I am more or less compelled to get up. As I think of all those lost years I long to imitate the ant.

At the age of 23—or less— of thereabouts—Pitt had become prime minister of England. Yet here I am at the age of 68, and I am not prime minister of England yet. The moral is possibly obvious.

Still, it is perhaps better not to allow oneself to be guided by statistics. There are few hours of the 24 passed more innocently than the hours of sleep.

The same may be said of the hours spent in reading. Do not be dissuaded from reading even if you know that all the books you and your fellow-Londoners read in the course of a year, if placed end to end, would read from Charing Cross to the Rocky Mountains.

That fact is meaningless in comparison with the fact that you are at the present moment enjoying the “Pickwick Papers.”

I have always disliked mathematics.


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