Rules of Thumb

September 29, 2009


I’ve been seeing that “mythbusters” and other such shows and websites are very popular these days. Looks like there’s an ample market for it, judging by the urban legends and other wacko stories that clog my email inbox every day. :S

I found a cute website called Rules of Thumb that some of you readers may enjoy. It’s basically a website of stories, trivia, and myth-busting facts about commonly-believed ideas. I like how the site is compiled, and they also inject healthy doses of history in with their tales.

A rule of thumb is a homemade recipe for making a guess. It is an easy-to-remember guide that falls somewhere between a mathematical formula and a shot in the dark. A farmer, for in­stance, knows to plant his corn when oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears. An economics profes­sor knows from sad experience that inviting more than 25 percent of the guests for a univer­sity dinner party from the economics depart­ment ruins the conversation. Rules of thumb are a kind of tool. They help you appraise a problem or situation. They make it easier to consider the subtleties of the topic at hand; they give you a feel for a subject.

A hundred years ago, people used rules of thumb to make up for a lack of facts. Modern­ day rule of thumbing is rooted in an overabun­dance of facts. The average person, confronted with the Internet’s oceans of data and multiple overlapping Ph.D. dissertations, often is as perplexed as a pioneer chemist trying to whip up a little gun­powder without a formula. A pilot in a tight spot doesn’t ask questions about aeronautical en­gineering; a pilot in a tight spot asks “now what?” There are times when you don’t need to know the best way to do something. These are times for ballpark figures, for knowing what you probably can get away with.

some things are kind of cute. Like this one:

Try this: Count the number of times a cricket chirps in 15 seconds, and add 37. No, you didn’t just calculate your age in cricket years – you measured the temperature outdoors in degrees Fahrenheit. You just used a rule of thumb.

I do take issue with the statement: “A hundred years ago, people used rules of thumb to make up for a lack of facts.” I don’t see where this has ended; people still use rules of thumb to make up for lack of facts! I mean, look at evolution! Now THAT’s one urban legend I love to see dismissed. 😉

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2 Responses to “Rules of Thumb”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Gotta love the information age – cute article!

  2. The Other Alice Says:

    HAHA!! I totally agree with your last two sentences. I second the motion!