Once upon a time in America, McDonalds’ signs would actually tell you how many burgers they’d served. There’d be two billion one year and four billion the next year and so on and so forth, until the total number of served burgers exceeded the total population of the planet Earth by a factor of about a dozen or so. They stopped giving a specific number after that, because if it’s clear that everyone on Earth should have gotten at least one burger by now and they haven’t gotten it, then it’s equally clear, given the evidence available at my local Wal-Mart every Saturday afternoon, that a whole lot of people in this neck of the woods and maybe elsewhere as well have gone back for seconds and thirds and maybe a couple orders of super-sized French fries as well.
Other numbers try to deceive us, while others do their level best to scare us silly. The Russian writer Vassily Aksyonov once wrote that Americans are in love with horrifying statistics, the scarier the better. There is a book, the Statistical Abstract of the United States, which is so full of horrifying statistics that I am surprised it is not permanently number one on the New York Times bestseller list. The book gives the number of annual homicides and the ten leading causes of death in the United States and the number of illegitimate births and just how many alcoholics and diabetics and broken homes and the numbers on so many varieties of social dysfunction that reading it is guaranteed to keep you up to all hours of the night wondering what’s going to come first, hell or the hand basket. In fact, with so much social dysfunction going on from one end of our great republic to the other, it is amazing that anyone can call the average American family average anymore, since the last twelve people this description applies to will, no doubt, shortly wind up on a television talk show trying to explain the odd behavior of average people to millions of uncomprehending viewers.
Prices are another set of deceptive numbers, but we are usually all too willing to go along with them, although most people are loath to admit it. We want the deception; we know the seller is lying to us, he knows that we know he is lying, and we all pretend otherwise. The only reason that the whatever it is you want and shouldn’t buy with the kids’ lunch money is priced at $99.99 is that you want to tell yourself later that you got it for less than a hundred dollars, thereby negating the very loud and voluble complaints of whoever it is that’s going to hit the roof when you tell them that little Johnny is going to have to beat up some smaller kid for their money or do without lunch this week. The deception here suits the buyer just fine for the time being. Regrets will come later when the bill arrives and the warranty on the whatever it is he bought runs out, which usually occurs simultaneously, something that doesn’t happen in nature very often.
Part of the problem with the barrage of numbers we face these days is that it takes a truly staggering number to get our attention anymore, and numbers that big have a problem of their own: people tend to tune them out after the first two or three times they hear them. That’s because all such numbers tend to be even numbers, and even numbers are inherently less believable than odd numbers. I’ve seen any number of hucksters claim that they’ve changed tens of thousands of lives with whatever it is they’re selling and that you too, for the paltry sum of $49.99 can join this happy horde of unspecified tens of thousands as well. These guys seldom do well and after a few years of beating their heads against the wall quit the racket entirely and go into another, better paying field of criminal endeavor like loansharking or politics. There is a simple explanation for their failure: even the most unintelligent of potential suckers sees in the invocation of the unspecified tens of thousands something of the slippery and therefore the phony. No one believes this con artist because no one believes his even numbers. But how much closer to getting your money would this guy be if instead of some incredibly vague even number he could look you straight in the eye and say that you too could have entire life changed, just as the 267,439 other people who’ve had their lives and their bank balances changed by him and the whatever flummery / pie in the sky / swampland in Florida / week old fish he is peddling this week.
The odd / even number conundrum is known to science, who regrets ever meeting the conundrum or loaning him that money to get his car repaired. During the nineteenth century, members of a British surveying team calculated that Mount Everest stood exactly 29,000 feet high. Confronted with the unlikelihood that anyone would believe such a round and even number, the members of the surveying team added another couple of feet onto the mountain so no one would question their calculations. But this false standard could not stand forever, not in the face of modern science. The Himalayas are young pups by mountain standards, only a few million years old at most, a product of India’s having one too many on a Saturday night and colliding with Asia out in the parking lot. In 1999, the National Geographic Society and some organization from Boston that wasn’t the Red Sox recalculated Everest’s height as 29,035 feet, which only goes to show you the real benefits good nutrition and clean living will have on a growing boy. The wise and numerate reader will no doubt have noticed by now that the new height is neither unbelievably round or suspiciously even, but is rather a completely odd number, and therefore worthy of our respect as the acme of geological and topographical truth.