Here is a quick quiz. If you visit the Wikipedia page List of countries by GDP, you will find three lists ranking the countries of the world in terms of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP), each list corresponding to a different source of the data. If you pick the list according to the CIA (let’s face it, the CIA just sounds more exciting than the IMF or the World Bank), you should have a list of figures (denominated in US dollars) for 216 countries. Ignore the fact that the European Union is in the list along with the individual counties, and think about the first digit of each of the GDP values. What proportion of the data points start with 1? How about 2? Or 3 through to 9?
If you think they would all be about the same, you have not come across Benford’s Law. In fact, far more of the national GDP figures start with 1 than any other digit and fewer start with 9 than any other digit. The columns in the chart below shows the distribution of the leading digits (I will explain the dots and bars in a moment).
Distribution of leading digits of GDP for 216 countries (in US$)
This phenomenon is not unique to GDP. Indeed a 1937 paper described a similar pattern of leading digit frequencies across a baffling array of measurements, including areas of rivers, street addresses of “American men of Science” and numbers appearing in front-page newspaper stories. The paper was titled “The Law of Anomalous Numbers” and was written by Frank Benford, who thereby gave his name to the phenomenon.
Benford’s Law of Anomalous Numbers states that that for many datasets, the proportion of data points with leading digit n will be approximated by
log10(n+1) – log10(n).
So, around 30.1% of the data should start with a 1, while only around 4.6% should start with a 9. The horizontal lines in the chart above show these theoretical proportions. It would appear that the GDP data features more leading 2s and fewer leading 3s than Benford’s Law would predict, but it is a relatively small sample of data, so some variation from the theoretical distribution should be expected.
As a variation of the usual tests of Benford’s Law, I thought I would choose a rather modern data set to test it on: Twitter follower numbers. Fortunately, there is an R package perfectly suited to this task: twitteR. With twitteR installed, I looked at all of the twitter users who follow @stubbornmule and recorded how many users follow each of them. With only a relatively small follower base, this gave me a set of 342 data points which follows Benford’s Law remarkably well.
Distribution of leading digits of follower counts
As a measure of how well the data follows Benford’s Law, I have adopted the approach described by Rachel Fewster in her excellent paper A Simple Explanation of Benford’s Law. For the statistically-minded, this involves defining a chi-squared statistic which measures “badness” of Benford fit. This statistic provides a “p value” which you can think of as the probability that Benford’s Law could produce a distribution that looks like your data set. The follower-count for @stubbornmule is a very high 0.97, which shows a very good fit to the law. By way of contrast, if those 342 data points had a uniform distribution of leading digits, the p value would be less than 10-15, which would be a convincing violation of Benford’s Law.
Since so many data sets do follow Benford’s Law, this kind of statistical analysis has been used to detect fraud. If you were a budding Enron-style accountant set on falsifying your company’s accounts, you may not be aware of Benford’s Law. As a result, you may end up inventing too many figures starting with 9 and not enough starting with 1. Exactly this style of analysis is described in the 2004 paper The Effective Use of Benford’s Law to Assist in Detecting Fraud in Accounting Data by Durtshi, Hillison and Pacini.
By this point, you are probably asking one question: why does it work? It is an excellent question, and a surprisingly difficult and somewhat controversial one. At current count, an online bibliography of papers on Benford Law lists 657 papers on the subject. For me, the best explanation is Fewster’s “simple explanation” which is based her “Law of the Stripey Hat”. However simple it may be, it warrants a blog post of its own, so I will be keeping you in suspense a little longer. In the process, I will also explain some circumstances in which you should not expect Benford’s Law to hold (as an example, think about phone numbers in a telephone book).
In the meantime, having gone to the trouble of adapting Fewster’s R Code to produce charts testing how closely twitter follower counts fit Benford’s Law, I feel I should share a few more examples. My personal twitter account, @seancarmody, has more followers than @stubbornmule and the pattern of leading digits in my followers’ follower counts also provides a good illustration of Benford’s Law.
One of my twitter friends, @stilgherrian, has even more followers than I do and so provides an even larger data set.
Even though the bars seem to follow the Benford pattern quite well here, the p value is a rather low 5.5%. This reflects the fact that the larger the sample, the closer the fit should be to the theoretical frequencies if the data set really follows Benford’s Law. This result appears to be largely due to more leading 1s than expected and fewer leading 2s. To get a better idea of what is happening to the follower counts of stilgherrian’s followers, below is a density* histogram of the follower counts on a log10 scale.
There are a few things we can glean from this chart. First, the spike at zero represents accounts with only a single follower, accounting around 1% of stilgherrian’s followers (since we are working on a log scale, the followers with no followers of their own do not appear on the chart at all). Most of the data is in the range 2 (accounts with 100 followers) to 3 (accounts with 1000 followers). Between 3 and 4 (10,000 followers), the distribution falls of rapidly. This suggests that the deviation from Benford’s Law is due to a fair number users with a follower count in the 1000-1999 range (I am one of those myself), but a shortage in the 2000-2999 range. Beyond that, the number of data points becomes too small to have much of an effect.
Histogram of follower counts of @stilgherrian’s followers
Of course, the point of this analysis is not to suggest that there is anything particularly meaningful about the follower counts of twitter users, but to highlight the fact that even the most peculiar of data sets found “in nature” is likely to yield to the power of Benford’s Law.
* A density histogram scales the vertical axis to ensure that the histogram covers a region of area one rather than the frequency of occurrences in each bin.