When Joe McCarthy told a stunned America that there were 57 card carrying members of the Communist Party in the United States State Department the
allegations were treated as fact. After all, 57 is a very specific number. It must reflect an actual counting process, and if something can be
counted, it must exist, right?
Wrong. Joseph McCarthy's 57 (or is that 102?) Communists is a classic example of what Charles Seife, in his must read book
calls a "Potemkin Number." Like the fake
buildings supposedly put up by Prince Potemkin to fool Catherine the Great into believing that the serfs were living prosperous lives, a Potemkin
number is a hollow façade designed to deceive.
It is natural to assume that numbers have meaning. Without context, however, numbers can be meaningless. In "The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy,"
a supercomputer reveals that the answer to the ultimate question is "42." The problem is, no-one is certain what the actual question is. Context.
Anyone can invent a number and use it to create the illusion of reality. You might doubt that there are suspicious people hanging around on the
street, but if I tell you that I can see three
suspicious looking people hanging out on the corner, you might take my claim a little more
seriously. The specificity gives weight to the claim.
We want facts in order to understand things. "Shots may have been fired" sounds wishy-washy. "Shots have been fired," is more affirmative, but
"six shots were fired" is best of all. "Six shots," six is a number, that makes it a fact, right?
Wrong. Without evidence, "six shots were fired" is nothing more than a claim, not a fact. Before you believe that six shots were fired, you need to
know who is making the claim and how they obtained the information. Were they present when the shots were fired, or are they merely repeating
something someone else said? If you trace the claim back to its origin, you also want to determine how accurately the shots were counted. Did someone
count each shot as it was fired, or did they make a guess based on their recollection? Did they count muzzle flashes or sounds? Each method has its
own strengths or weaknesses.
This may seem like hair splitting, but it is actually a very important part of critical thinking. Numbers without a context can be used to lie. There
were not 57 card carrying Communists in the State Department, yet McCarthy was able to convince people that there was a massive conspiracy afoot.
Whenever a source provides a number, ask yourself how they arrived at that number. If you cannot see any evidence that shows how that number was
arrived at, it may be a Potemkin Number,a number plucked out of thin air to persuade you that a lie is based on solid fact.
Here is a handy guide to spotting Potemkin Numbers:
1. Is the number plausible? Does it seem too high or too low?
2. Is the number too precise? In the early stages of a disaster, one can speculate that "hundreds are at risk." 349 at risk would be too
3. Is the number rounded appropriately for the context? The Apollo program cost around
110 billion dollars, as opposed to
4. Is the method used to determine the number transparent? If it is a statistic, is the sample size significant? Is the methodology explained?
Be on the lookout for Potemkin Numbers, the propagandist's best friend.