Did you know that if you spread all your skin evenly over a flat surface you’d die? Fifty percent of our readers thought I was going to say it would cover an area the size of Belgium. (The other one’s gone to look for a knife, since you ask.) What is it about this “highly improbable” country that’s made it the standard international measurement for death and destruction, as in “an area of rain forest the size of Belgium has disappeared”?
You’d think that given its popularity, the measure would be standardised, with 1 Bm = 1000 millibelges, but in fact the correct subdivision is football fields. These are used for a range of difficult measurements such as the length of oil tankers at sea, but really come into their own when scientists need a particularly precise metric for the size of sophisticated equipment like the UK’s Diamond Light Source Synchrotron.
So, how many football fields are there in a Belgium? I’ve no idea. And I haven’t a clue how big Belgium is. Even in Brussels, I’m sure few people could tell you the size of the place. Yet you see this “statistic” practically nobody could define used worldwide. Does that matter? Probably not. In fact it can be quite useful.
As Belgian writer Paul de Man said, metaphors are much more tenacious than facts. Belgium is a country most people have heard of, even if they couldn’t locate it on a map, and anything that’s as big as a country must be really big. Likewise, most of us are exhausted by the time we run the length of a football field, so it must be really long.
The (average) statistician is now apoplectic. Comparing this kind of garbage to real statistics just because they both claim to measure something is like comparing coal to diamonds just because they’re both made of that stuff they’re both made of. They’ve got a point. A striking image is fine to draw attention to something, but for practical purposes, you need precise, comparable data. The OECD has over 200 statisticians supplying its 200 committees and working groups with over 200 indicators on all areas of government action.
To celebrate World Statistics Day, why not take a look at our statistics portal on the OECD iLibrary? You’ll find the expected and the unexpected: data economic growth of course, but even which OECD country has the tallest population. I still couldn’t find the area of Belgium though.