Back in college, I had a professor that loved to use statistics to prove his point. I hated that. In today’s world of twisted politics and biased news reporting, who can really believe statistics? I know that statistical information obviously can have merit, but no longer does the phrase “Statistics don’t lie” have any merit. Stats don’t lie, but they can be presented in a way bends the truth.
That professor I mentioned was for a class discussing teaching methods for classroom education. We were focused on “the way kids learn” which is a very valid point. We all learn differently. I for one am a visual and auditory learner. I get much more out of a lecture or discussion versus reading the same material. Once I realized that I because of a better student because I was able to focus my attention on how I learned best. As a teacher knowing the different ways students learned and being sure my lessons were presented in a way that each student could get the information in their best learning method made a huge difference.
So why do I have a sour memory of this professor and his statistical quoting ways? Because he quoted them way too much and on things that I didn’t feel like stats really applied. “The statistics show” or, “they say” became two phrases that I loathe. I began spending most of the lecture marking down in my notes how many times he would say one of those phrases. If I remember right he averaged over 10 per lecture and a record over 20…in a 1-hour lecture!
I don’t always believe stats because when doing a research study there are often far too many variables to measure or control, so though you may arrive at your conclusion, it may be based on faulty suppositions. So when I hear stats on the results of a study, I always question the methods of the research before I believe the final outcome. I am not a conspiracy nut, but I am pretty distrusting of absolutes, especially when they appear in popular media.
Have you ever taken a political or news survey over the phone? If you have enjoyed this glorious event before, you must have noticed how questions are specifically crafted to generate the results they want. Even if you are opposed to the underlying opinion they are driving for, the questions will lead (read that trick) you into the stat they want. Let’s say you support the troops in Iraq but question our motives for being there. Valid position to have as an American. You do your best to answer survey questions to that effect. The news the next day will report “65% of Americans don’t believe Bush can run our country.” Whether that is true or not, the twisting of stats to meet an agenda really irks me.
Because of this attitude, “they say” is something that pricks that nerve in the back of my mind to this day. Unfortunately, my highly educated and wise wife used to use that phrase all the time when talking about child raising and psychology techniques. This was not because she was overly trusting or naive, it was just in her vocabulary when telling me about things she had read and enjoyed. Fortunately, because she knows it bothers me so much she has successfully replaced that phrase with better options that don’t cause the hair on the back of my neck to rapidly rise.
Still, I hear people quoting what they have heard, read or seen in the news or even second (or who knows how many) hands from friends as fact, it drives me batty. Think of it, with today’s easy publishing online (especially with blogs) anyone can proclaim themselves authority and someone is going to believe them. There are plenty of Cliff Claven’s out there that are enjoying their limelight spewing their little-known facts or opinions as fact which is being consumed by avid readers online.
Just because something includes stats doesn’t make it any more credible in my view. My favorite quote about stats I heard some time ago (credit my previous co-worker Aaron Jensen), “67% of all statistics are made up on the spot.” It took me a minute to get that one the first time I heard it. I love it though. It represents my attitude towards most quoted stats because we remember them so poorly anyway.
Stats have their place, and I believe that is in peer-reviewed literature based on validated studies contributing to science. Everything in popular media I just figure those stats of either been contrived by the questions to get results. A sad situation that I don’t see getting any better in my lifetime.