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How Numbers Helped Save One Venerable Magazine

May 30, 2008
Among publishers, advertisers, and other business folk, the idea that Americans hate numbers is almost proverbial. One publishing-industry dictum holds that each equation an author puts in a book's manuscript will cut that book's sales in half. Pundits decry slipping American math scores, suggesting that such math illiteracy may indicate threats to future American dominance in business and industry. And, in business school, teachers warn their students against "data-dumping," AKA giving information in the form of numbers, in their business presentations.

But there's at least as much evidence suggesting that Americans, like other people, enjoy math when it's presented well. Many parents report that their children go from hating to loving math when presented with better teachers or individualized tutoring, and such math-heavy books as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Roger Penrose's The Road To Reality find themselves selling in large volume - even, in Hawking's case, dominating bestseller lists. (So much for that publishers' dictum.)

Math is a progressive subject - each new idea builds directly on the ideas preceding it in the curriculum, so it's important not to miss a single detail, and students may have trouble moving at a standardized pace. Maybe it's frustration, not inherent boring qualities, that makes so many students swear off math; perhaps it's for these reasons that mathematician Timothy Gowers has written: "I am convinced that any child who is given one-to-one tuition in mathematics from an early age by a good and enthusiastic teacher will grow up liking it."

That the human mind is attracted to the neatness of numbers is evident from at least one publishing-industry trend - the wild success of the Harper's Index, which, since its debut in 1984, has gone from being a celebrated new idea to a staple of American magazine publishing. Every month this venerable magazine (published since 1850) supplies its readers with a list of precisely-defined numerical factoids, and readers have found this raw data-dump to be among the magazine's most addictive features for nearly eighteen years.

According to writer George Plimpton (writing in the introduction to a paperback anthology of the Index's greatest hits), the Index was the invention of then-Harpers editor Lewis Lapham (now semiretired). Lapham had tried a similar format in a column he'd written for the Washington Post, stringing together an index of fanciful topics ("mice cloned," "actors drowned at sea").

Charged with redesigning the venerable monthly magazine, Lapham decided to try the format again, but with real numbers, arrived at by Harpers' small but crack research team. The leadoff item in that first Index was Total hours of television watched in American households in 1983: 218,000,000,000. (If that number doesn't grab your attention, nothing will.) Soon subscription renewals were pouring in, and other publications were stealing the idea.

Some - usually, most - of the numbers are topical, as in a recent (April 2008) Index, where we learn: Percentage change last year in the number of Americans declaring personal bankruptcy: +40. Often, the magazine's indefatigable researchers string one or more topical numbers together:

Chance that an American believes the economy is in a recession: 3 in 5; Percentage change since July in the number of US newspaper articles each month using the word "recession": +1300 - Point made.

Sometimes the numbers seem to comment on each other, and the Index ticks upward toward a climax of bad news:
Number of Ohio's five voting-machine systems that had "critical security failures" in a state-commissioned study: 5
Number of the systems that have been removed from operation: 0

And, always, a goodly number of the numbers are just for fun:
Number of Grammys won to date by Barack Obama and Radiohead, respectively: 2, 2
Estimated number of bacteria transferred to a dip via "double-dipping," according to a Clemson University study: 2750

What do these numbers themselves prove? Maybe nothing. Certainly, shorn of context and lacking footnotes as they are, these little factoids should provoke as many questions for readers as answers. But if nothing else, the enduring popularity of the feature shows that American readers are not afraid of being asked to learn a few figures, to compare one number against another, to ponder what a figure might mean.

It suggests that we understand the importance of data, of statistics, in helping ourselves to understand complex social phenomena. (After all, you can say "Americans watch a lot of television" till you're blue in the face, but it won't have the power of the nine zeroes following that 218.)
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