A number of years ago I was driving down the road listening to the radio when I heard an astounding statement come over the air waves. After thorough research, scientists had concluded that children learn more effectively in smaller classrooms, i.e. in settings where the ratio of students to teachers is smallest.
I wondered if I had missed something. Or if, perhaps, I was so exceptionally brilliant that I already knew this even though no one else did. But then I remembered that my wife (a former school teacher) was one of the first persons I had heard discussing this concept. And then there were countless others who had mentioned it in passing as if it was a known fact. I was just one smart guy in a crowd of smart guys, right?
The things we give graduate students to “prove” in their respective theses! And maybe, of course, the point is to teach research skills, not necessarily to evaluate some new concept (especially in master’s level degrees).
Since that day in the car I have been more aware of research comments, statistical insights, and our sometimes blind acceptance of anything boasting high percentages to make a point.
Not that numbers don’t matter. Because they often do.
And not that statistics aren’t helpful. Because they often are.
But statements using statistics can not only be apparent proofs for the things we already know instinctively or from experience; they can also be misleading, agenda-driven, narrow assertions that occlude the truth. And therein lies my concern.
What toothpaste is recommended by the largest percentage of dentists? Which pain reliever is most often prescribed by doctors? Which dog food or cat food satisfies the most pets?
Of course, the marketing and advertising industry has been employing statistics in this fashion for decades. They want to sell products. And they know each of us listening to or watching their ads will be influenced by statistics a minimum of 65% of the time (sorry, I couldn’t resist creating a statistic there).
The “truth” with a capital T on a given subject (we often assume) is necessarily supported by the majority of people who “ought to know” about that given subject. And so those of us who aren’t experts in a given field of study rely on those persons we perceive to be experts in that field. Thus, we buy the aspirin, purchase the toothpaste, take the vitamin, eat the celery, drink the Kool-Aid (so to speak).
But what if the experts polled in a given field, whose opinions are reflected in the statistics of a given ad, are not representative of experts in that field. Or (we shudder to think), what if they are representative, but the majority of experts are ill-informed?
The ramifications are a bit scary, right?
It’s in the details, isn’t it, the proverbial “devil” as well as the facts?
I remember being floored when I heard how books, for instance, make the famed “Best Seller” list. It was when I had finished reading one of the most difficult books ever (The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom, 1987), and I was marveling that it was on the New York Times Best Seller list. I thought to myself, “A lot of people may have bought this book, but they certainly have not done the arduous (albeit rewarding) work of actually reading it.” Then I mused, “But why would they buy it? Status? Ha!”
No. Books, I came to learn, are put on the Best Seller list because bookstores have been convinced by great book salesmen and marketers to purchase large quantities of the book. The “sales” are sometimes counted over a few select days (the sale of any would-be competing classic literature is not included in this count BTW), and publishers sometimes use the briefly created best seller status to promote the book even further. And you know how we ALL respond to statistics that reflect SUCCESS. We buy more books! No one wants to miss the bandwagon. Right?
Fear of terrorism has been the topic of discussion over the air waves lately; ISIS, and what to do with Syrian refugees has launched us into a debate that includes (but it not limited to) the closing of our borders to Muslims and/or any others who seem to pose a threat.
As a result many have wished to erase the Statue of Liberty’s invitation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores . . . .” Some wager she no longer wants to lift her lamp “beside the golden door.”
And, of course, the argument to the contrary includes (wouldn’t you know it) . . . statistics. Yes, the percentage of Muslim terrorists in this country who are involved in mass shootings. They say the number is very low.
The same thing happens with black/white racial issues, police brutality, racial profiling and the like. Almost every social argument you hear for or against a thing involves Statistics, Numbers, Percentages, Probabilities.
What is the likelihood that a given individual who enters AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and gets sober will stay sober? Less than 50%?
What is the likelihood that two persons who marry will stay married? One in two? Or that rainfall will occur on this date in north Georgia? That an individual will be involved in a serious traffic accident before he/she is 30 years old? Or that persons with high fat intake will get cancer?
The percentage of children in the U.S.A. who will be diagnosed with autism by their third birthday? Your chances of being struck by lightning? How often the stock market experiences a downturn after a global catastrophe? Which vacuum is listed as having the fewest number of complaints in Consumer Reports?
We start our day with statistics that inform us about what weather to expect that day, and we dress accordingly. We drive in ours cars with the aid of a GPS device that tells us approximately how many minutes our trip will take given the volume of traffic. We eat a lunch of our choosing based upon how likely we are to suffer a heart attack as a result.
We are an information-driven society enamored with statistics, clamoring for the latest poll numbers, and pillowing our heads at night on a mattress that promises to give at least 20% better rest than its competitors.
Trouble is, not everyone is telling the truth. Or, they may be telling a truth, but not the whole truth. “The truth,” says Obi-Wan Kenobi, “from a certain point of view.” But how aware are we of the point of view that serves as the basis for these multifarious “truths” that guide our actions, purchases, and opinions each and every day?
It has been said that “numbers cannot lie.” They are what they are. Nevertheless, these pure, true numbers can also be used to buttress a point of view that is just plain wrong.
So, where are we left with it all? We are part of a society bent on constant evaluation, where products are constantly shifting in rank due to statistics. There are good statistics, and there are bad statistics. There are statistics that illuminate the truth, and there are statistics that occlude the truth.
We are left to decide which is which.
Rest assured, we will make decisions on how to live and treat others based on what we decide.
And so . . . how will YOU choose?
P.S. An unprecedented 85.2% of persons who read and comment on this blog will have a better life.