Sunday, 2 October 2022

The Mystery of The Missing Third Question and Commonwealth Measures by Steve Way


As I’m interested in mathematics and statistics and how these are portrayed and used appropriately through the medium of language, I have possibly railed on previously about the kinds of adverts which try and sound impressive by displaying ‘statistics’ such as ‘71% of 84 people agreed when asked that our skin cream was effective/fantastic/not a total con’* or such like. Even if I have railed on about such inane and misleading statements as you’ll see I carry on a bit in the footnotes.

More particularly, at the moment, I want to focus on misuse of language when it comes to the authorities posing an inappropriate survey question on the public. (The like of which children are expected to call out in their GCSE exams incidentally by identifying similar misdemeanours.) I’m going to refer to it as: The Missing Third Question. Indeed, I’d like to call on your creativity to suggest what The Missing Third Question** should be.

In case you weren’t aware of it the government produced a survey to test out the national enthusiasm for the re-introduction of imperial measurements. The question was posed in this way: “If you had a choice, would you want to purchase items: i) in imperial units ii) in imperial units alongside a metric equivalent.”

Hence the mysterious Missing Third Question.

Other than the obvious omission I would be interested to know what you might suggest. My suggestion is: “iii) or would you prefer to throw off all the trappings of modernity and scientific advance and go back to living as we did in the Middle Ages?”

Even if the antiquated forms of measurement are reinstituted wouldn’t it be time to rename and recalibrate them? Surely now that we have a new monarch who rather than ruling over an imperial empire presides over a commonwealth, could they be renamed ‘Commonwealth Measures’. Also, could they recalibrated to the length of King Charles’ body parts rather than those of King Canute or whoever it was?

Alternatively, how about a new form of measurement based on the principles of the imperial system? Namely that: i) That they be based on one specific everyday item, all the others of which are not likely to be of exactly the same length, weight etc. ii) That the multiples connecting the different forms of measure be as inconvenient as possible.

In the same way that the metric system brings together the dimensions of length, weight and volume***, I propose that the basic unit of measure be The Hamburger, which of course enjoys all three qualities. The Hamburger could be sub-divided into seven Gherkins, which of course could be divided into milli-Gherkins. (This would be the only time a sensible multiple would be utilised.) The next scale of measurement could be the standardised Distance From Gaming Chair To Screen, which would be equivalent to 28.5 Hamburgers. Here I’m beginning to flag but once again I invite your ideas. I have thought that the near equivalent to the Ton (or Tonne!!) weight could be The 4 By 4, which would be equal in weight to 3004 Hamburgers.

I look forward to receiving your suggestions!


*I always wonder what happens to the 29% who apparently don’t think the face cream is fabulous. Since it seems highly likely that with such a small sample they asked their mates and work colleagues, do the colleagues end up sacked and the friends forever ostracised?

Also, maybe I’m interpreting the closing message of one of the relevant advertisements too pedantically but are they suggesting that our value as a human being is only equivalent to that of a tub of face cream?

Just to get a little perspective re ‘71% of 80 people’. There are apparently around 68 million people living in the UK, most of whom could be prospective customers. There are about 11.8 million children under the age of 16, the majority of which, though by no means all, could be excluded – leaving 56.2 million. It’s probably largely fair to split that number in half, even though many men buy skin cream (or as in my case nick some of my wife’s) leaving us with approximately 28.1 million potential customers. So the sample is in the ratio of 80 : 28 100 000 or 1 person representing 350 000 others. Not a very representative sample.

**It sounds like the title of an Agatha Christie, doesn’t it? ‘Aye ‘Ecule Poirot ‘ave uncovered Ze Missing Third Question and so aye can reveal ze culprit oo ‘as omitted to use eet. ‘E is…’

***Rather cleverly a 10cm cube of pure water has a volume of 1 litre and a weight of 1 kilogramme. Clearly far too sensible…


You might be interested to watch my poem about averages – mainly aimed at children – with a nod to being suspicious about the statistics being bandied about:

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