One of the strengths of numbers is that they can accurately represent quantitative data and allow for easy and thorough comparison. Numbers' ability to represent qualitative data is entirely another thing.

Yes the latest ranked index of countries based on subjective analysis that news agencies love reporting is out, and it surprised even me. According to the 2008 Legatum Institute's Prosperity Index which proports to "measure the material health of a country, including wealth, quality of life and life satisfaction", these are the latest rankings from the top:

  • Australia
  • Austria; Finland
  • Germany; Singapore; United States
  • Switzerland
  • Hong Kong
  • Denmark; New Zealand
  • Netherlands
  • Sweden
  • Japan
  • Norway; France; Belgium; Canada; United Kingdom
  • Israel
  • Ireland

And the unfortunate bottom half dozen:

  • Zimbabwe
  • Central African Republic
  • Mali; Zambia
  • Yemen

This raises the inevitable question: did they just use alphabetic sorting to generate this list? Australia and Austria at the top, and Zambia and Yemen at the bottom?

I found it interesting that Singapore was hugely penalised simply because of a climate "that is not moderate". I personally love the warm weather in Singapore, it means I can leave the house at 3am and still feel comfortable. Guess I'm in the minority on this, though it shows why qualitative analysis and charts like this really don't mean much and are largely subjective.

What really disturbed me though was their "Religious Belief" index which penalised (mostly rich) countries with large numbers of atheist, agnostics and non believers. Australia and Finland was docked 8 points, Switzerland 6 and Japan a whopping 12. What does faith in ideas without evidence have to do with economics, living standards and quality of life?

I like those little flag images. But this flag is still my favourite:

Flag of the United Nations