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Could statistics be taking over the world?

Oct 05, 2015

Are you aware that 42.9% of statistics are made up on the spot? When I first read this it really made me smile, we’ve all been there.  

Managing Director to Sales Manager: What percentage of our removals involve clients who are under 30 years of age? 

Sales Manager (if he’s asking me he obviously doesn’t know – and nor do I): 42.9% sir!  

From that moment on, the situation is compounded; this piece of information is passed around the company until it becomes sacrosanct - even though it has no factual basis - until somebody carries out a proper analysis. I’m sure that this happens more often than we would care to believe, and many important decisions can be made as a consequence of fictitious information.  

I know that ‘statistics’ is an acknowledged branch of mathematics and therefore, presumably, deserving of our respect.  But when you consider, for example, the performance of various polling experts during the last general election when most of them seemed to get their predictions totally wrong, one wonders about the general veracity of the information they provide. Of course there are two aspects to this discipline: the collection of information; and the interpretation of it. The latter is the problem I think. Maybe that’s where the skill comes in, but interpretation can vary according to personal experience. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware that the accumulation of statistics is vital for any organisation (or individual) in order to make informed decisions, but sometimes it seems as if we are suffering from information overload.  

Do you do the lottery? I don’t, for me it’s too much of a – well – lottery. Anyway, what really gets me is that if you watch the results programme, which I do on very rare occasions – on average once in every sixteen weeks - we might be told, for instance, that ball number 12 has appeared on six out of the previous fourteen weeks (statistics). Ball number 12 is a superstar. Welcome back you are the child of statistics. So what! Does it really matter? 

How about the odds when betting? They’re statistics, the accumulation and interpretation of information, but unfortunately not always in our favour. Statistics occur in our lives all of the time – that’s the fifth glass of red wine you’ve had this evening, you won’t get to sleep. Accumulation and interpretation of information? Or maybe a subject for more sober judgement.   

Statistics can also save your life. The medical profession thrives on them and they are very important to us. Information about obesity (fat chance they’ve got of being correct!) and every other aspect of our physical being are published, but sometimes these not only contradict each other but also change according to whatever is perceived to be the current dogma (or interpretation). I’ll give you an example:  

Some years ago I read how, statistically, salt had been proved to be bad for you as it lead to increased blood pressure with all of the consequent health problems (actually, examining statistics can often have a similar effect). Anyway; so I stopped taking salt with my meals - a bit tough at first - but I compensated by using more pepper. A few months later, I was driving along the M4 and listening to the radio when there was an announcement about a programme coming on at 3:00 pm where, amongst other things, a dietary specialist would be discussing the dangers of having too much pepper in your diet. “Oh no!” I thought. “They’ll be saying that sugar is bad for you next.”  

Of course a statistician will tell you that their science is all about probabilities, and the cynic would say that this simply means that they are probably wrong, but is there any room left for that old reliable ‘gut feeling’? At the moment my gut feeling tells me that I should not have had those five glasses of red wine, especially as I couldn’t get to sleep all night.   

Interestingly enough, once you’ve read this you will find yourself noticing how much the provision of statistics effects every part of our lives. I’ve just watched the news and almost every item involved the use of statistics in one form or another (82.3% of items actually). Biased or otherwise it is an important form of persuasion, so maybe we just have to accept that they are really just a symptom of our ever increasing search for knowledge and improvement. Maybe you disagree and maybe it’s more complicated than that, and I would like to tell you that I’ve been wrong more times than I’d be prepared to count, but there are no figures available.  


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