Using my A to Z Archives: Benford’s Law

The one topic in my 2017 series that I picked myself, without a nomination, was the second, on Benford’s Law. It’s one that seems to defy the notion that numbers are independent of human construction. It’s a mathematical principle discovered in the modern day by experimentation. It’s one that likely would not have been found, in the form we know, if electronic computers were abundant and cheap two centuries ago.

For a small point I wanted to mention how (United States) street addresses can serve as a rough proxy for position. So I needed some house numbers. One that was small and one larger. It’s hard for a human to pick random numbers. We tend to pick odd numbers more than even. We tend to shy away from ‘edge’ numbers, taking (say) 1 to be somehow less random than 3 or, better, 7. When I have to pick an arbitrary number then I try to pick even numbers, and try to run toward the edges. I know this makes me no more random than anyone else. But it means at least my numbers look different.

A person important important to me lives on the 400 block of their street. So I picked a 400 number, and changed the last two digits away from their actual address. Then I needed a larger number. If 400 is a plausible enough ordinary number, how about the 1400 block? So I wrote into my essay the ideas of a house at 418 and another at 1418. I also wanted an even higher street number, and if -18 is a good plausible low number, why not -88 as a good plausible high number? And so I went with that and put it to press.

And, I swear to you, I did not think about it past that.

The trouble is that white supremacists have adopted the number 1-4-8-8 as a dogwhistle. It’s used as reference to the Hitlerian agenda of boundless evil.

When I realized this I thought about what to do. One tempting option was to leave it as is. As a set of digits this is as good as any other. A symbol has power if it is taken to represent that thing; why give one more inch or jot to evil people? And anyone who knows me would know better than to think —

And there’s the rub. Anyone who knows me would know my longing for a just and decent world. More than seven billion people do not know me, and never will. How much time do I demand they spend studying my politics to know that I did not make this completely arbitrary choice to deniably signal cruelty? One point of a dogwhistle is to make something that the perpetrators understand, and the targets understand. And skeptical onlookers will think a meaningless or coincidental choice. This because the overt action of the dogwhistle is something that looks arbitrary or insignificant. That it is about something that seems trivial is important. It lets the aggressors paint their targets as paranoid and thus ridiculous, finding dire patterns in randomness. Who am I to make other people study me to know whether I intended something or whether I thought “I know someone who lives on the 400 block of their street. What’s a number that also has a 4, but is not too much bigger”?

This decided me. Were the number something relevant to the essay, I could justify keeping it in. If I were writing about James IV’s ascension to the throne of Scotland I couldn’t skip naming the year it happened. But for this? And so my imaginary houses moved to 419 and 1419 and 1489.

Mathematicians like to present the field as a universal thing, free of the human culture and concerns and thoughts that create it. It’s not, and can’t be. This example turned up, with thematic unity, in an essay about a thing that turns up studying things that seem to be independent of human culture. It’s a lesson I shall remember.


Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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