Stupid quote

During the course of my working week, I am often the unfortunate recipient of some balls-​​out stupid emails. You know the kind, stories that almost definitely never happened, jokes that would make a six year old cringe. And sometimes I get quotes. Quotes that are supposed to be inspiring or memorable, but are mostly uninteresting and immediately forgettable. I’m pretty good at just ignoring them. But I couldn’t ignore this one.

“Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?”

It was uncredited, I don’t know where it originally came from. But it does get 13,700 hits in Google, so there must actually be people out there who think this is a good question. Initially I assumed the question was rhetorical, designed to highlight a paradox in human behaviour, and to ‘make you think’ (I suppose the point was intended to be something like: “why do we take answers to big questions on face value, yet demand evidence for smaller things? Isn’t that weird?!”). I then dismissed this assumption, on the basis that a rhetorical question shouldn’t ever be so damn easy to answer, and this one totally is.

So what is the answer? This: It takes barely two seconds to check if paint is wet, and much more time and effort to count the stars. I have crunched the numbers, and come up with the following statistics:

But there are more problems here. Firstly, stars are numbered at ‘four billion’ in the quote, with no context at all. We know (tentatively), thanks to years of painstaking investigation and inquiry, that there are far more stars than this in the known universe. In fact, we are fairly certain that there are over 100 billion galaxies, each with anywhere between 10 million and 1 trillion stars. That leaves the total stars in the universe in the hundreds (or even thousands) of sextillions, a number many orders of magnitude higher than your girly little 4 billion. So maybe the person quoted was only referring to the number of stars in our galaxy (too high), or the number of stars visible to the naked eye (also too high). But without any other information provided, the conclusion here is that ‘4 billion’ must just be a number plucked from the sky, presumably because it just sounds like a big impressive number. Maybe they got it confused with the age of the Earth?

Also, who just believes you when you say there are 4 billion stars? My guess is that a normal reaction would be: “Really? What…in total?” This would imply innate skepticism, and a desire for justification of the claim. If someone just believes you when you claim a number of stars, in no other context, and for no apparent reason, then you may wish to save the Astronomy conversation for someone with a little more intellectual rigour.

Not to mention, there are other reasons for a desire to verify the ‘paint is wet’ claim, other than disbelief (and the fact that you easily can). The person may want to know just how wet it is. The paint may have dried since you yourself last checked. Maybe they have a genuine interest in paint quality, texture and type. Actually, if you’re the kind of person who is regularly in the position of advising others about the wetness status of paint, you’re probably some kind of painter. Talking to other painters. About paint. I suspect this because I’m not a painter, and as a result I could count on one hand the number of times in my entire life that I’ve ever had to warn anybody about paint wetness. Even then, I’m pretty sure they believed me, and didn’t uncontrollably shoot their hand out to check. Similarly I’m not an Astronomer, let alone an extremely bad one who thinks it’s ok to go around saying “There are 4 billion stars!” like some kind of impulsive, inaccurate weirdo.

To summarise:

  • People usually don’t just believe you when you say there are 4 billion stars.
  • People don’t usually go around saying there are 4 billion stars.
  • There aren’t 4 billion stars (well there are, but then there’s another 4 billion, and another, and another…).
  • One doesn’t just jam ones fingers into wet paint.
  • If people do check the paint claim, but not the star claim, it’s because former is easy to check, and the latter isn’t.
  • The other reason people do this is they don’t do this.

I hope we can now move on to more prudent, serious philosophical questions, like “Why do we park in the driveway, but drive in the parkway?” duuurrrhhrhrr