Friday, June 16, 2006

83% agree that Mark Twain had it right on statistics!

Every day you hear statistics. The presidents approval rating us up, it is down, it shows a decline from last time but it is on the increase from the same time last year. This product is proven to lower your cholesterol by this much and raise you good cholesterol by another 15 points. Statistics show this is more accurate, this is straighter, this will improve your sex life, this will gloss your hair more, this will make you better, cuter, smellier, whatever!

How do you know what statistics are saying? I took statistics in college and failed it the first time, I took it again and barely passed. When someone talks to me about statistics my eyes will gloss over and the corner of my mouth starts a little tick. I have a friend who teaches statistics and he seems so down to earth for a crazy person. The problem with statistics is that they look so innocent and seem to say so much without saying anything. The little percentage (%) sign is really a sign that stands for the devil, in fact, I think I can see a 666 hidden in that sign.

Let’s take a popularity poll for a particular idea. You read: “There is a 50% increase in support for people marrying their pet elephant” This may surprise you at first glance that half of the people polled want to marry elephants. What it really says is that the percent of people who support marrying elephants has increased by 50%. So if it was 2%, now it is 3% or if it was 40% now it is 60%. So that statistic really doesn’t tell you anything, in fact you can use that poll to say anything you want. PRO: 50% increase in support for marrying elephants. CON: Only 3% of people polled support marrying elephants. Both use the same poll, both are right, but both are radically, diametrically opposed.

Mark Twain said that there are “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics” and I agree. Every time you hear a percentage or opinion poll or approval rating remember: those numbers are worse than lies and damn lies. Understand the only reason they are used is to push on you support for the purveyor’s point of view. You will be 62% happier in your life if you only believe statistics 33% of the time.

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