business statistics

Statistics in Popular Media

Statistics are powerful weapons. Marketers and politicians weld them well when the situation demands it. Unfortunately, this skill often results in misinformation and sometimes, downright lying.

How Statistics Are Misused

One way they deceive is by confusing the scientific process. Statistics summarize experiments and studies to get at the conclusions. But, they are not synonymous. A study is a situation in which data are observed. The investigator cannot control for everything that may influence the results.

An experiment is a controlled situation−ideally. A good experiment has a randomly selected representative sample along with a control group. It is big enough to be meaningful. It is also conducted double-blinded. Neither the researchers nor the participants know what group they are in.

Marketers may use studies and report the results like experiments. The problem with this scenario is that one cannot find causation with studies, only correlation. Yet, when journalists/marketers pick up on these stories, that line is blurred.

Cherry Picking the Results

Another devious tactic involves the results. Don’t like what the study or experiment shows? Throw it out! With over a million papers published yearly, you’re likely to find something you like better.

I’m not suggesting all papers are examples of good science. Stinkers get through each year. Just ask Andrew Wakefield or Gilles-Eric Séralini.

Spotting the Fraudsters

There’s one surefire way to spot a liar fraudster. They break a cardinal rule of science. You probably see this whopper all the time. And it’s so blatantly false. Whenever you read or hear someone claim that something is scientifically proven,  you’re being had.

Science is provisional. This means, according to Merriam-Webster, “existing or accepted for the present time but likely to be changed.” In science, there is no truth with a capitol T.

Some people may find this statement uncomfortable. It’s not meant to be. Rather, this is an accurate assessment of what science is. Don’t be afraid of it. Ignorance is not always bad. The late Richard Feynman offers sage advice.

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

So, the next time a marketers tries to sell his scientifically proven best widget, give him a dose of Mark Twain and tell him,

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.” Chris DR

photo credit: Numbers And Finance via photopin (license)

Posted in Lessons Learned and tagged , .