Numbers are not truth. Statistics are not certainties. The devil lives in the details.

It’s been a long few days of national tragedies.  I’ve had to block more than a few people on social media because I can’t put up with the people politicizing these events and trying to make them fit their ideological messaging.  This is a time for reflection and rationally moving forward, this isn’t a time for actions to be made in anger.

But that’s not what I’m here for today.  Today I’m here to remind people that simply because you use numbers does not mean you are accurately portraying a situation.  There’s a lot of people throwing out crime stats, murder rates, and demographic data to prove their points.  Ironically the two extreme sides of the argument are using the exact same numbers and sources.  The amount of yelling that a particular use is right is amazing.

Numbers are not truth.

There is a reason that scientific studies need to be validated for possible bias and that the people who fund research are looked at for bias as well. Two people looking at the same set of numbers and conditions can often come up with diametrically opposite conclusions.  Only through repeated experimentation, additional outside perspectives, new angles to the research and long periods of time can we come to a community conclusion.  Anyone reacting to emotional situations with 48 hours and using numbers as the basis for their reaction is using information wrong.

Similarly, statistics are not certainties.  When Nate Silver says that Hilary Clinton has an 80% chance of winning the election he is not saying that she is definitely going to win.  He’s simply saying there is a good chance that she will.  This early on an 80/20 split isn’t really that much off from a coin flip yet because the numbers have the opportunity to change dramatically over the next few months.  Yet the coverage of this has made it seem as if Nate Silver has given Donald Trump no chance and has called the race.  His past success is influencing how the press covers this story.  Similarly, social media blew up over this as well.

My experience in life has taught me that the use of statistics and numbers in arguments is almost always wrong.  It is difficult for people to realize that a set of numbers and statistics can mean different things or be inconclusive.  I’m not saying that one side is right and the other is wrong – I’m saying that both sides have valid points and the right answer to these deep, profoundly difficult questions are not simple or easy.  They cannot fit into a social media post.  They cannot be black and white (both metaphorically and actually).

How you use information is important.  Good data can be used for wrong.  Bad data can be used for good.  Neither of these is the right way to do it.  Stop, pause, think.  If you haven’t waited to respond until you are in a coolly rational state it may be worth pausing again unless you will leave out the numbers.  These numbers didn’t do anything to you, treat them with respect.


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