C.S. Lewis wrote in his Reflections on the Psalms,
“Almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough.”
Part of our humanity is that we’re constant interpreters. And we’re not just interpreters of books like in the quote above, but we’re interpreters of just about everything….including numbers.
A long time friend who has been in my organization a really long time has told me a couple times,
“If you beat a number long enough, you can make it say whatever you want it say.”
This is often true of statistics. Have you heard someone share a statistic and you might have some knowledge of what when on and you have the thought, “You know, there’s a different side to that story…”?
I was watching the NCAA Tournament this weekend and during halftime of the Marquette vs. Murray State matchup analyst Kenny Smith said something to the effect of,
“This is what we’re talking about when we say ‘Stats lie.‘“
What he was saying was that while the numbers on which people would normally gauge success for a certain player might look horribly bad, if you asked the people closest to the action with the most understanding you’ll find out that the true story may be totally different than the story the numbers tell on their own.
I think baseball is a great sport that illustrate how stats can lie. Agents will use some stats to try to strengthen contract demands like home runs and RBI. Then the teams will respond with how bad that player’s on base percentage is and how many strikeouts they have. Usually, outside of crazy myopia, negotiations end up somewhere in the middle. That’s because…
One set of numbers doesn’t usually tell the full story.
So while this is not an argument against statistics, this is a call to think about how we access the truth. For all of us recognize the importance of measurements. But not all of us think critically about our own approach to numbers as interpreters of reality and the truth. This is where many factors come into play like character, culture, and power.
Is our interpretation of some statistics leading towards the telling of partial truths? Or are we sometimes, consciously or not, as Kenny Smith suggests telling outright lies?
There’s a few posts coming with a view to look at different dimensions of statistics and truth telling so check back in a couple days for more!