The economy of Zimbabwe is over 7,000 times worse than the Orioles lineup but you’d never know it from reading this anti-Zimbabweist blog

A strange burst of numerical rhetoric from Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy (a blog I generally like, in case I seem to be picking on it here:)

It is, I think, still possible to make a left-wing case that, overall, Israeli policies are, say, 10% worse than French policies. Perhaps even 50% worse. I don’t agree with such claims, but they are not wildly implausible. However, it is utterly impossible for a fair-minded observer with typical left-wing values to conclude that Israel is 100 or 1000 times worse than France. Yet the ratio of left-wing criticism of Israel to left-wing criticism of France is far closer to 100-1 or 1000-1 than 1.5-1.

I suppose one could compute something called a “ratio of left-wing criticism” by having a team of undergrads leaf through editorials for a long time. I’m not sure, though, how one is meant to calculate the ratio of policy badness that Somin’s comparison requires, nor is it clear what one would gain from this comparison. Phrasing things numerically, though, gives the reader the false impression that there’s automatically a meaningful quantitative computation to be made. Don’t use numbers when you’re not actually talking about numbers! If you replace “10%” by “a little” and “100” by “a lot,” you start to be aware that the underlying claim “In order to be considered unbiased, one should complain a lot about things that are very bad and comparatively little about things that are not so bad” is, well, pretty false.

One thought on “The economy of Zimbabwe is over 7,000 times worse than the Orioles lineup but you’d never know it from reading this anti-Zimbabweist blog

  1. John Cowan says:

    Another version of this defect in thinking is when people talk about this or that being “highly probable” or “highly improbable” when there is no hope of getting a numerical estimate of that probability. Discussions about the existence of God seems to be rather prone to this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: