Herodotus and Rats: a comparison?

For those of you who were at the ROAM 3 last Friday, it was really great for me.  Nice to meet you guys/gals in person and have a chance to chat and tip a wine glass.  For those of you who were not with us, you were missed and we toasted you.  It was a very fine evening.

So, I left my xerox of the Republic in a bar on Sunday near Bryant Park, leaving me bookless for the flight back to Austin.  Instead, I turned to Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.  I picked it up (along with a few other choice NYC-centric non-fictions) Saturday morning at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (which I also recommend).  I mention this because Sullivan reports a story I have heard myself from NYC friends, books, experts, et cetera: namely, that there is one rat for every human in New York, and thus, 8,000,000 rats.

It isn’t true.  After better scientific survey, the more likely rat total is really a mere 250,000.

Here’s what was interesting about the story vis-a-vis Herodotus.   The origin of the one human/one rat was some bad analysis done in 1909 in England.  W. R. Boelter toured the countryside and asked respondents if they thought 1 rat per acre was a reasonable assumption.  They did, and since there were 40 million cultivated acres in England at the time, he estimated 40 million rats.  By coincidence, there were also 40 million people in England at the same time and the extrapolation has persisted ever since.  Sullivan thinks people continue to like the one human/one rat statistic for some interesting reasons:

– It’s easy to remember
– It’s appropriately creepy, but not TOO creepy
– It humanizes the statistic
– It was sort of based on science

It got me wondering if some of H.’s whoppers (assuming you think he told some) might be based on the exact type of info collected from his interviewees.  I mention it only because the misinformation persists in UN docs, NYC Health Services pamphlets, and lots of local wisdom.  In other words, you can be both informal and inquire science and still come away with a very wrong fact.

Just food for thought.  See you all shortly.


12. August 2008 by Arrian
Categories: Commentary, Herodotus | Tags: | Comments Off on Herodotus and Rats: a comparison?