The truth: pure and simple

I have downloaded an iphone app that could have saved Robin Hood’s bacon.

A friend introduced me to a program called This V That. It takes two numbers and simply makes a statement. For example: 43% of countries with low prisoner numbers have low forest coverage. Hmm… the obvious conclusion is that forests are downright lousy places for prisoners to hide. Or this one: 62% of countries with low military forces have low Facebook usage. Could I therefore conclude that when your population gets itself engrossed in facebook it’s time to ramp up your armed forces? Or how about this one: 77% of countries with high homicides have low coffee consumption. If only everyone drank coffee, there’d be less murders in the world.

Now I know what you’re thinking – don’t be so ridiculous – just because you pull two numbers out of the air doesn’t mean you can claim anything from it. On most days I would say you were right. But today isn’t most days. No, not yesterday, tomorrow or most days, it’s to-day (ala Alice in Wonderland).

People abuse numbers each and every day. It’s so common that we hardly notice. I’m surprised that numbers don’t go on strike in an attempt to regain their worker’s rights. Take this example from The Numbers Guy: this week he discusses reports California must cut it’s prison population to 137.5% of capacity. (Perhaps I should let those Californians know that the secret to lowering prisoner numbers is to chop down the forests. After all, countries with little forests have few prisoners!) The Number dude goes on to explain that prison population is reported at 137.5% of capacity wherein capacity is defined as one prisoner per cell despite the fact many cells will comfortably house 2 – 4 prisoners.

Yet it doesn’t have to be as politically sensitive as the size of a prison population. Number fraud extends to situations we encounter each and every day: this cereal now with 10% more fibre – but who asks 10% more than what? Or 80% of women prefer the new face cream complete with vitamin E. Well of course they do… wouldn’t you give preference to the cream over Uncle Gilbert’s mushed sardine face mask? Or good old uncle Johnny’s way of determining that Australian’s don’t want a republic. The referendum didn’t ask whether we wanted a republic (pure and simple); it asked whether we wanted a certain type: cleverly splitting the yes vote resulting in a ‘no’.

So the next time someone throws a number at you, stand up for the rights of numbers! Demand sample sizes; insist on seeing the numbers not just the percentage. Lastly, have a cup of coffee. It reduces the murder rate. Or so I’ve heard…

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Posted on June 20, 2011, in Data and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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