As the saying goes, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It was made famous by Mark Twain but attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. While that saying is certainly old, it is as relevant today as it was then.
Why when this saying is stated, do we chuckle or nod our head? Well, it relates to us and each has witnessed many times untrue statistics being used in a way that is meant to gain support. Or, even truthful statistics may be cited but with the understanding that the public will interpret the statistic in a different way. For example, when we see mean being cited instead of the median in a situation that clearly will confuse the public and should have median cited.
We are humans after all and are busy and don’t have an opportunity to track down every statistic. Plus, like most people, we have a bias to believe things that support our opinion and disbelieve things that don’t support our opinion. This is not because we are evil but because of our tribal nature. It doesn’t help that peer-reviewed research studies are being shot down left and right for lack of replicability.
While we are busy people, my belief is that if everyone had a little more knowledge of statistics mixed with a dose data skepticism, then we would have a better and more productive professional and public debate. Maybe we start this path by having us each take a critical data thinking course which not only encompasses statistics but also encourages data skepticism. Not because I don’t want people to believe things cited blindly, but because I want us to be better able to understand and believe things cited. As a place to start yourself thinking more skeptically, try consuming information sources that don’t directly align with your beliefs and take a look at sources cited when people cite statistics.
Love to hear what you think about this and if you have seen courses at high school or earlier level doing this? Contact me and let me know or if you have any other insights, thoughts, or suggestions then I would love to hear them.