We live in a society where we are inundated with data, where numbers and statistics are thrown at us constantly. In part this is an understandable attempt to make sense of an increasingly complex world, to reduce complicated situations to a shorthand version we can absorb.
All well and good, until we begin to accept the numbers uncritically, without understanding their weaknesses, shortcomings, and inherent fallacies in certain situations. We seem to desire to quantify everything, but once we’ve assigned a number we conveniently cease to think about whether the criteria that went into the original creation of that number remains valid, if indeed it ever was.
Numbers are an attempt to make the intangible tangible but often it is a fool’s quest. Who can truly quantify the most important things in life? The depths of the human soul? Happiness? Contentment? Pain? Loss? Numbers standing alone give the illusion of certainty but often without the underlying validity promised, few numbers can truly be understood or relied upon without footnotes, qualification, or an in-depth understanding of how they were arrived at.
The national GNP (Gross National Product) expands and we are told we are making economic progress, but included in that number are attorneys’ fees for divorces, the cost of repairing shoddy products, funeral expenses, gasoline burned while sitting in traffic jams, bars on windows in high-crime areas, and on and on. Increases in those numbers (or the need for those increases) surely leave us worse off, not better.
Numbers are like any other tool. Used with wisdom, judgment, and expertise they empower us and leverage our talents. Disaster occurs when we rely upon numbers excessively, blindly trust them without verification, forget that numbers are not reality but merely representations of reality created by human beings as flawed and error prone as we are.
“Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say.” — William W. Watt
“Then there is the man who drowned crossing a stream with an average depth of six inches.” — W.I.E. Gates
“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” — Rex Stout, “Death of a Doxy,” a Nero Wolfe detective novel
“Torture numbers, and they’ll confess to anything.” — Gregg Easterbrook
“98% of all statistics are made up.” — Author Unknown
“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” — Aaron Levenstein
“A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.” — Plato