At Vienna airport on Saturday morning I made the mistake of buying The Economist’s most recent little book of facts – The Pocket World in Figures, 2016 Edition. I love facts. I can’t get enough of them.
At first I was going to use the term factoid to describe these entertaining trivia but when I looked it up I was astonished to find that the word was coined by Norman Mailer, no less, in 1973 and was intended, originally, to refer only to false statements that we take as true simply because they are often enough repeated (such as that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space).
But, as Wikipedia documents, the word has shifted in meaning over the last forty years, and now it’s understood to refer to any trivial truth that is frequently repeated, is briefly fascinating, and instantly forgettable. Factoids of this kind are what you need if you want to win Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
And I’ve just offered you one.
I’m sometimes told by my partner that I’m a tiny bit autistic, and if that’s a fair description of someone who can read a list of facts for an hour or two, or pore over an atlas, then it’s probably true. I like to know about things, how they work, who made them, what they’re for. What is it to be human, after all, if not to have time for the pointless? Indeed, I just asked a swimming pool attendant here at our Montenegran holiday hideaway about the population of Montenegro (around 650,000) and I feel all the richer for knowing this.
The Economist’s little book is therefore a treasure trove for people like me. Here are some of the highlights:
I may never go to Rwanda, but I am delighted to know that Rwanda’s parliament has a higher proportion of female members than any other parliament in the world.
I am also interested and surprised to learn that there are more than three men for every woman in Qatar, and too few in Moldova, though I can’t see how to put this knowledge to good use.
Bulgaria has the slowest growing population of any country in the world.
Melbourne, in Australia, is the most ‘liveable’ city.
Norway is the country with the highest ‘human development index’, and is also the most democratic (Syria the least).
Sweden is the country with the most equal household income.
Macau and Singapore are less dependent on agriculture than any other countries and contain the most city-dwellers (100%). No surprise, I think, in both respects.
The United Kingdom is the eighth consumer of tea.
Albania produces all of its electricity from hydro-electric sources.
The Turks, working an average of 49 hours each week, are the most industrious in the world.
Brains are draining more rapidly from Myanmar than from any other country.
In terms of distance driven annually per car, Chileans are the world champions. Given how long and thin their country is this is not particularly remarkable.
The Swiss travel further by train each year than any other nationality. Presumably this has something to do with the famed reliability of their service.
In Monaco women may expect to live nearly 94 years, longer than the women of any other nation.
Both the men and women of Qatar are the most obese in the world (respectively 40% and 49.7% of those aged over 18).
The people of Myanmar are the most generous in the world in terms of the money and time they give to those in need.
In the United Kingdom, more new titles per head of population are published than in any other country.
The Czechs drink more beer than anyone else.
The United States imprisons a higher proportion of its population than any other country.
Iceland is the most peaceful country in the world.
Don’t you feel richer for all these facts?!
A note on the title of this book…
How can facts and figures ever have a future date? It’s 2015 now, so how can The Economist’s pocket book be the ‘2016 Edition’? What facts can we know now that will certainly be true in 2016? True, many facts about 2015 may survive, but then why put them together under 2016?
Isn’t it the case that anything that’s certain enough to be true for all time is not, in fact, a fact. ‘2+2=4’ is not a fact, for example. Certainties of the logical or mathematical kind are not discovered, as facts are, they are derived.
Discovered facts, if they are true (as facts, logically must be) are understood to be true at the time of discovery. They may continue to be true in 2016, but crucially, they may not be.