A matter of size and whispers

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORERose Parade grand marshal Rita Moreno talks New Year’s Day outfit and ‘West Side Story’ remake160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! As Christmas approaches, the pressure to find just the right gifts also builds – a far greater problem for men than for women. When it comes to women’s clothing, not only doesn’t one size fit all, but as far as men can tell, even the “right” size usually doesn’t fit. Once a man’s significant other has hinted frequently enough about what she would like for Christmas that he actually takes notice, he then must face the size problem. Women’s sizes vary widely across makers and stores, and they have grown more accommodating over time. Given the desire to feel thinner, this can give an ego boost to someone who can thus resize herself down. But the size challenge leaves a man at a loss, stuck between the implications the woman of his dreams will draw if he picks either a size too large or if the “right” size turns out to be too small. While considering this problem, it occurred to me that intentional mis-measurement is not limited to just to clothes. We systematically abuse numbers to distort reality. For instance, unlike adults, who want to feel thinner, parents want their small children to be “ahead of the curve.” In response, many firms cut infant sizes smaller, so everybody can have children who are advanced for their age. For older children, grade inflation gets added to how we use numbers to intentionally fool ourselves. Student desires for higher grades have been accommodated to the point that the median GPA of graduating seniors has risen about a full grade point since in 1965. At some schools, who is valedictorian has become a question of how many 4.0 students will share that title. And many schools have gone further, making it possible to far exceed a 4.0, through Advanced Placement and community college courses. Inflation also boosts egos by manipulating comparison numbers. If I wish to believe I make more than my father ever did, the effects of inflation can overwhelm every other difference and make it so. Competitive inflation also occurs with percentages and statistics. “Giving it 100 percent,” once a phrase for going all out, has been replaced with “giving it” 150 percent, 200 percent, even 1,000 percent. Similarly, statistics are routinely manipulated to make insignificant changes look significant, as when reports scream that a drug doubles the probability of some form of cancer, when the odds go from one in 10 billion to one in five billion. Everywhere you turn, people “cheat” on measurements to make things look better than they really are. John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” But we seem determined to prove him wrong. Recognizing the depth of our commitment to “improving” reality through number manipulation rather than facing it puts the problem in perspective. Unfortunately, that broader problem and its consequences will remain even after all the wrong-size gifts have been returned to the mall. Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Write to him in care of Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA 90263.last_img read more

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