Actually, the Mad Biologist’s Rule of Base Ten Numbers is a pithier way of describing how certain numerical estimates or quantities are chosen based on little or no evidence. For example, when asked what an appropriate sample size is, someone will often respond, “ten.” Of course, it might very well be that either nine or eleven are, in fact, the appropriate sample sizes, but we have a tendency when making shit up to focus on numbers divisible by five or ten, or, if we’re dealing with really large quantities, increasing the quantities ten-fold (i.e., moving from 100 to 1000).
To give a policy-related example, a piece of proposed legislation that I’ll be discussing in the future, the STAAR Act, proposes to fund ten centers that deal with antibiotic resistance, at a total amount of $15 million. Let me explain the process by which these numbers were reached:
- Drop trousers.
- Shove hand up own ass.
- Manually extract shit.
- Repeat often as necessary.
The reason I put this so, erm, succinctly is that there’s been no actual estimate of how many centers are needed or what a functional budget for each center should look like. What if, to address the problem, we need nine centers, each with a budget of $2.83 million?* These numbers are pulled out of…let’s call it thin air (for the children’s sake)
Which brings me to abstinence-only AIDS non-prevention** programs. By way of Jill at Feministe, I came across this post by Beth Frederick about the theopolitical conservatives opposition to PEPFAR, the U.S.’s international anti-HIV program, unless at least 33% of prevention funds go to support abstinence-until-marriage programs. Frederick writes:
Furthermore, the 33% of funds set aside is a completely arbitrary number. It could have easily been 99% if Congress would have gone along with it in 2003.
At the time, when amendment author Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) called for the earmark, he couldn’t really explain why it should be 33% – just that it should be there. My guess is that he thought it was one part of the A-B-C prevention message, and since it’s one letter of the first three in the alphabet, it should get one third of the funds. But, really, who knows?
When it comes to policy, always be suspicious ‘clean’ numbers.
*There are other, more fundamental problems, but these ridiculous numbers are one problem.
**Abstinence-only programs should be called non-prevention programs since they don’t work.