Lies, Damn Lies and Anecdotes

“Lies, damn lies and statistics” is a phrase used to disparage the persuasiveness of statistics.  Anybody who has worked with statistics even a small amount know how numbers can be massaged to fit the biases of the ones doing the massaging.  I’ve seen it firsthand in the use of business statistics and we’re all getting a taste of it in the field of science with the e-mails uncovered a few weeks back in Climategate.

I have learned to be very skeptical of statistics, even statistics that support my own intuitions and beliefs.  Usually, with just a little poking, I can find problems in the data that damages the validity of any conclusions drawn on the analysis.

But, while statistics can often be used to persuade the logical mind who has not yet come to appreciate problems in data, anecdotes are even more dangerous because they are used to persuade the general public, especially in journalism.  Statistics are just numbers on a page.  Go find one of those numbers and show what it means and the persuasive factor has increased by several multiples.  A picture is worth a thousand words.

Just about every news story uses real life people to bring points the reporter wants to make alive.  That’s entertaining and interesting, but often this is abused because the reporter neglects to balance the stories with anecdotes form others and gives a distorted picture of reality.



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