Watching sports provides a lot of great entertainment. The thrill of victory, agony of defeat and all that. It also provides many great opportunities for never ending arguments about just how great various sports achievements are. Often these arguments are bolstered by the misuse of statistics. One such example was the constant references to Michael Phelps as “the Greatest Olympian Ever” which was based on the fact that he’d won more medals than any other athlete in history.
To be clear, I’m sure an argument can be made that he is the greatest ever, but the use of one number, medal count, to determine that really bothers me. As often happens in the media, the number is looked at in only one context (compared to the number of medals other athletes have won) rather than considering a great number of other factors:
Cybercrime is a fear for just about everyone, from individuals fearing identity theft to large corporation guarding sensitive data. The question is, how valid is this fear? It is a question that was raised recently in an Economist article and it makes it clear that politicians are not the only ones who misuse and abuse numbers.
Claims have been made that cybercrime is bigger than the drug trade and that it costs a trillion dollars annually. Most of these figures come from firms who specialize in preventing cybercrime...in other words the same folks who will benefit if people feel the need to protect themselves from cybercrime. These figures are generally not questioned, either out of numerical ignorance or the belief (probably correct) that big numbers scare people and help to sell newspapers (or in today's world web hits).
In my last blog I talked about a simple chart on Morning Joe, which was presented by Steven Rattner. I submitted that when we see data presented in the media or especially by politicians, we should judge it in terms of how a researcher would have presented the same data (because of course researchers are free of bias...well let's leave that for another blog). I gave Mr. Rattner a pass last time, but his presentation of a chart on infrastructure was misleading and would only have pleased a client who wanted misleading data to prove a point.
In this case he presented a chart showing infrastructure spending as a percentage of GDP . It showed a massive drop from the high in the 1950's to the low of today. The chart had a y axis that went from 0% to 1.5% which made the drop easier to see. Nothing wrong with that (assuming those viewing the chart understood that it was not based on 0-100%).
A few blogs back I talked about how the political season would bring on a rash of misuse and abuse of numbers. I've had my ears open for examples and a couple that came up recently got me to realize that a more nuanced view is necessary here. The real rule should be that pundits and politicians should be held to the same standards as we are by our clients. Namely, the numbers should help in the decision making process...not mislead or confuse the facts.
In the next two blogs I'll use some charts presented by Steven Rattner on the Morning Joe television program. For those of you who don't know, Mr. Rattner was the President's Car Czar. While this probably means he comes with his own bias, I have generally found that when he presents data he does so in a pretty fair way.
Was at Il Tartufo* in Manayunk the other night, waiting near the bar after dinner when a waiter - who was not my waiter - surprised me. "How'd you like the Fettuccine Cinghiale?" she asked.
I had liked it just fine, but was curious to know how she knew what I'd eaten. I hadn't seen her near my table all evening.
"I just saw the bill for your table," she replied. "Guys always get the wild boar pasta."
Part waiter and part analyst - new competition for us market researchers?
I was watching the final round of the Bridgestone Invitational and my 14 year old son came in to the room. I told him the established narrative. After a difficult two years Tiger Woods had returned to golf, but not before firing his long time and very loyal caddie. Most saw this as just plain nasty on Tiger's part.
I then told him how another golfer, Adam Scott, hired the caddie and was now on the verge of winning the tournament. I summed it up by saying that justice had prevailed.
He didn't even miss a beat before asking me, "Did Adam Scott fire his caddie so that he could hire the caddie Tiger fired?"
I don't follow competitive golf closely enough to know the answer. Worse, I had not even considered that the narrative "Tiger mean/Adam good" might be a bit off.
A good lesson for any analyst to learn.
The 2012 Presidential Election season is upon us. I don't know about you, but other than the barrage of commercials, the thing I like least about political campaigns is the terrible abuse of numbers. Combined with the current debate on the debt limit and we have the makings of a tsunami of misleading or outright incorrect statistics.
A few weeks ago, Megan Holstine started a discussion about a Senator using a totally made up statistic. Sadly for him, he quoted a number that was far from accurate, but also one that was easily verified. His defense was that he didn't intend the statistic to be taken "literally".
Makes me wonder if perhaps we've got it wrong. Think of the possibilities for us if we stopped taking numbers literally!