The Truth Behind Facts and Figures
July 23rd, 2020
From NASL Member Michigan Legislative Consultants‘ Craig Ryan:
I’m a stats kind of guy. I love connecting dots with facts. Add a snazzy infographic and I’m all in! I also love pouring through the cross tabs from a poll to see causality. It intrigues me. I get sucked in by it.
I love a good fact, too. For example:
Did you know that we only use 10% of our brain?
Have you met me? That’s being generous!
Did you know that the Guinness Book of World Records was created to settle bar arguments?
Huh? Sounds odd, but … OK!
One of the first things that I can remember my dad trying to teach me was that “figures lie and liars figure.” I don’t think that was a Mike Ryan original but, over time, I began to see his point. I’d fall for something that someone said, or something portrayed on the news, and he’d always remind me of that perspective. It was his way of cautioning me that I shouldn’t believe everything that I see, that I read, or that I’m told. He raised a skeptic. This was not an indictment of data, statistics or statisticians. Rather, it was a call to use reason and logic, ask questions, and seek understanding when presented with a conclusion based on numbers or so called “facts.”
Mark Twain once quipped, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
John A. Paulos, an American professor of mathematics stated, “79.48% of all statistics are made up on the spot.” Clearly these two men were skeptics of statistics. Why are we so quick to assume that something is factual when presented to us while, at other times, we’re so hesitant to accept the premise of an article, a news story or a research paper? Maybe it’s because we just don’t know what (or whom) to believe anymore. The term “fake news” is thrown around at an alarming rate. Maybe it’s because we tend to agree with things that are in agreement with our worldview – and discard things that aren’t.
Misleading with statistics is called ‘statisticulation’ and it is nothing new. In 1954, author Darrell Huff wrote a small book called, How To Lie with Statistics, which is the best-selling statistics book of the last 60 years (isn’t that just sad?!). What was true in 1954 is just as true today. According to Huff, here are seven common tactics used to knead statistical data into “dough”:
Small sample sizes
Results falling within the standard error
Using graphs to create an impression
The semi-attached figure
Let’s get back to my “facts” from above – of which one is true and one is false. Can you guess which one?
Only 10% of the Brain is Used (FALSE)
It only appears to be true in some people! The proportion of the brain “firing” at any one time is task dependent, but ultimately, every region is used almost every day.
The Guinness Book of World Records was created to settle bar arguments (TRUE)
The official origin story for the Guinness Book of World Records, the annual book that catalogs all of human achievement, is that it was used to settle an argument over whether the golden plover or the red grouse is the fastest game bird in Europe. (It’s the plover). One of the people arguing, Sir Hugh Beaver, the Managing Director of the Guinness Brewery, noted that the answer was hard to find in reference books. So, he started one to settle these kinds of trivial arguments and the Guinness Book of World Records was born in 1955.
Putting this all together, we cannot begin to fight “fake news” until we focus on increasing society’s data and information literacy. In business, in politics and in life we sometimes see individuals use data in misleading ways – either on purpose or by accident. Leaders will be presented with numbers that are almost always prepared by others. It is important that we understand the data, the context and any related issues. Making good decisions (supported by data) is one of the key roles of managers, leaders – and people in general.
In the meantime, perhaps the best advice I can give you is to be skeptical. Be very skeptical. Because, after all, you have 92.658% chance of being duped.