The Top 10: Zombie Statistics

The population of the world could fit on the Isle of Wight, and nine other ‘facts’ that just won’t die

John Rentoul
Saturday 03 March 2018 12:34
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The world's population could indeed fit on the Isle of Wight in the 1940s... but not now
The world's population could indeed fit on the Isle of Wight in the 1940s... but not now

Sometimes numbers that fit a popular prejudice appear from nowhere and by long chains of repetition that make it hard to find their original source become accepted. I don’t blame the internet: this happened before it arrived and the internet makes it easier to check facts. But some of these mythical figures keep coming back.

1. There are more people alive today than have ever lived. Nominated by Isabel. In fact, there are about 15 dead Homo sapiens for every one living.

2. The average age of Conservative Party members is 72. Parties don’t keep detailed records but the best survey evidence, a YouGov survey of party members for Queen Mary University of London last year, found that the average Tory, 57, is only four years older than the average Labour member, 53. So much for Jeremy Corbyn’s support among young people. Lib Dems are even younger, averaging 52.

3. Sixty-five per cent of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet. “Absolutely zero evidence for it,” said Jonathan Simons. “It may literally have been made up in the US 30 years ago.”

4. One in four people suffer from mental illness/depression in their lifetime. Nominated by James Ball. Often cited in a well-intentioned attempt to raise awareness, but the terms are rarely defined or sources given.

5. You need to drink eight glasses of water a day. James Ball again. Seems to have come from an arbitrary 1945 recommendation that itself said: “Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.”

6. People use only 10 per cent of their brains. Nominated by Sunny Hundal, Suzi Gage and Alan Beattie, who supplied the British Medical Journal reference. Many brain imaging studies “show that no area of the brain is completely silent or inactive”. (That BMJ article also debunks “hair and fingernails continue to grow after death”; “shaving causes hair to grow back faster, darker, or coarser”; and “reading in dim light ruins your eyesight”.)

7. The entire population of the world could fit on the Isle of Wight. Nominated by David Banks, and explained by Steve Milesworthy: “This was true in 1940. Area of Isle of Wight: 380 million square metres; six people per square metre gives 2.3 billion or so. At a squish you could get into the 1960s.” The world population now is 7.6 billion.

8. Only 37 per cent of the electorate voted to leave the EU. Thanks to A Perfect Fifth. It is true but irrelevant. If you don’t vote, your vote doesn’t count. You might as well say 65 per cent of the electorate refused to vote to remain.

9. You’re never more than six feet from a rat in a city. Nominated by Miss Mossley. Even Rentokil, which has an interest to declare, says it is 20 feet and admits this is a “crude and rather misleading conclusion based on the UK rat population and the size of the country”.

10. There is a culture of worklessness in some families where in three generations no one has ever worked. Only one study has investigated whether such families exist and didn’t find any. Thanks to John McTernan.

One statistic that does seem to have had a stake driven through it is the claim that turnout among young people was 72 per cent in the 2017 election. This was all over social media in the days afterwards. Since then a scholarly debate about the supposed youthquake has established that turnout was almost certainly higher than in 2015 among 25- to 44-year-olds, but that among 18-25s it was probably more or less unchanged at around 45 per cent. (Among all voters turnout was 69 per cent.)

Then there are some numbers that sound bogus but which may not be. There really are 50 Inuit words for snow, according to David Robson of New Scientist. And the Sami (the people of what used to be known as Lapland) do have as many as 1,000 words for reindeer.*

Sarah Spence was “slightly disappointed” with the nominations for this list. “Was expecting actual zombie statistics here. For example, the percentage of zombies that get decapitated etc.” Sorry.

Next week: Alternative Book Titles, such as The Mutiny of the Hispaniola, better known as Treasure Island.

Coming soon: Indian English Words, such as bungalow, Blighty and tickety-boo.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to top10@independent.co.uk

*Update: Zahar S points out that Geoffrey Pullum, the distinguished linguist, and others energetically dispute these claims.

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