A mythical number
is a number
used and accepted as deriving from scientific
investigation and/or careful selection, but whose origin is unknown and whose basis is unsubstantiated. The term was coined in 1971 by Max Singer
, one of the founders of the Hudson Institute
The origins of such numbers are akin to those of urban legends and may include (among others):
- misinterpretation of examples
- extrapolation from apparently similar fields
- especially successful pranks
- comical results
- guess-estimates by public officials
- deliberate misinformation
Examples of Mythical Numbers
- The claim that humans use only 10% of our brains
- The five-second rule, regarding the eating of dropped food
- The recommendation to chew food exactly 29 times before swallowing
- Singer, Max (1971). "The vitality of mythical numbers". Public Interest (23): 3–9. Online at edwardtufte.com.
- Reuter, Peter (1987). "The (continued) vitality of mythical numbers". Public Interest (75): 79–95.
- Cook, Philip J.; Jens Ludwig, David Hemenway (1997). "The gun debate's new mythical number: how many defensive uses per year?". Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 16 (3, special issue: The New Public Management in New Zealand and beyond): 463–469.
The (Ongoing) Vitality of Mythical Numbers
by Jack Shafer