Am I having sex as often as I should be?
No one escapes the bedevilment of that question. In the pre-Internet age, only a determined reference librarian might have found an answer. Nowadays, you can Google your way through a thicket of polls, surveys and studies to figure out whether or not you are getting all the sex you deserve. It’s amazing how much personal data is accessible with a mouse click, largely because Americans are as willing to confide in pollsters, researchers and demographers as they are people sitting next to them on airplanes. A book by Les Krantz and Chris Smith, The Unofficial U.S. Census, Things the Official U.S. Census Doesn’t Tell You About America, mines the resultant trove of data for such nuggets as “17 percent of people with a tattoo regret having it” and “6 percent of all car crashes involve cell phones.”
The official census, the government’s population count that takes place every 10 years, doesn’t ask questions about tattoos or sex. Even though 25 percent of Americans aren’t sure what the census is meant to accomplish, it does provide straightforward demographics from which you can learn that Utah’s population is overwhelmingly white (80 percent), young (31 percent under 18), well-educated (96 percent high school graduates) and comfortable ($57,783 median household income). What you can’t glean from official census data are the drugs Utahns prefer, how many hours we sleep or how much ice cream we eat. Smith and Krantz provide the answers. Because they use “a wide variety of sources to answer the questions the government neglected to ask,” their book covers a lot of ground in a by-the-numbers approach.
A number is precise, authoritative and neutral. Adjectives and adverbs are less so. They don’t have the octane of data points, percentages and rankings. You could, for example, lament the state of the federal government using such modifiers as hopeless, gridlocked, dysfunctional and polarized, but none of them would have quite the impact of 70—the percentage of Americans who have lost faith in Washington’s ability to deal with the country’s problems. In this example, the number 70 validates what you know intuitively. In other cases, the number takes you by surprise, like $7,128, the average credit-card debt of American households.
Culled from surveys and polls, the numbers cited by Smith and Krantz are mostly metrics, indicators of what is going on around us. Some are obvious (82 percent of American households have barbecue grills) while others (the average work week is 34 hours) are not. Some are comforting (the average life expectancy is approaching 79) and some (173 kids under the age of 12 were killed by guns last year) are not. Some are sobering (40 percent of American adults don’t believe in evolution) and some (the f-word is uttered 506 times in The Wolf of Wall Street) are as insubstantial as cotton candy.
It is my nature to prefer words to numbers—my math skills are anemic—but I do like binaries, a construct that works as well with words as with numbers. Here is a pair of best/worst binaries: In 2012, Utah schools’ per-pupil expenditure was $6,849; New York spent $18,616 on each student. Utah’s rate of volunteerism was 43.8, while New York’s was 20.6. What insight lies within? Perhaps none. But when there is insight to be found, it’s usually midway between the poles.
Without math ability to call upon, I have trouble understanding algorithms. Nevertheless, I appreciate Nate Silver’s remarkable success using algorithms to predict the outcome of recent elections in his FiveThirtyEight blog. And I am in awe of the physicists whose equations predicted the existence of the subatomic Higgs boson, the so-called God particle. The predictive capability of numbers is part of their appeal. Silver’s statistical models predict that by 2020, 54.2 percent of all Utahns will favor same-sex marriage. While I don’t understand his methodology, I believe he is right.
There also seems little doubt that in 2020, another predictive number will prove to be true. By then, the carbon-dioxide level in the atmosphere will approach 410 parts per million, 60 parts above what many scientists believe is a level the climate will tolerate.
You can also trace predictive trend lines from a succession of data points. If you plot the average number of hours Americans sleep on weeknights, the downward slope begins in 1910 with 10 hours, drops to 7.9 in 1955, 7.5 in 1978 and 6.7 in 2010. If the trend continues, researchers worry that a resultant lack of productivity will have a measurable impact on the economy.
Anyone getting into the business of forecasting, economic or otherwise, is going to have to factor in the Internet. More than 95 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 now use it. Still, for all its benefits, the Internet is a pirate’s and pornographer’s playground. “Why you think the ’net was born?” asks the catchy Avenue Q song. “Porn, porn, porn!” Indeed, 12 percent of the worldwide web is pornographic. Sunday is the preferred day for surfing the 25 million porn websites, and on most days, 2.5 billion pornographic e-mails are sent.
Small wonder we are preoccupied with how much sex we are having. Thanks to the Unofficial U.S. Census, we have a benchmark of 118, the number of times the average American has intercourse in a year. If you are averaging two times a week, with good-behavior bonuses, you are probably on par. If not, you would be well advised to get more sleep (1 in 5 people reports being too tired for sex) and to vet your bedmates. Sleeping with a smartphone—as 80 percent of young adults do—is not smart.