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Lies, lies, lies?

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – commonly attributed to Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1886), Prime Minister…

By Amelia Bellamy-Royds , in The Numbers Game , on January 12, 2009 Tags: , , , ,

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
– commonly attributed to Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1886), Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

“People lie. Numbers don’t.”
– advertisement for the television show NUMB3RS (2005-ish)

In the Amazonian jungle, the Parahã people live in a world without numbers, with no need or ability to quantify the material of their lives.

In the concrete jungles of a North American metropolis, the same would be unthinkable, incomprehensible.

We use numbers to understand the world, and to try to control it.  We measure the temperature, the wind and the rain, and add it all up to tell us what coat to wear.  We count the days on a calendar, and calculate how long until spring.  We compare the local temperature with that of some sunny vacation destination, and wonder whether the numbers in our bank account are large enough to allow for a mid-winter getaway.

We communicate with each other in numbers, and judge the fairness of our interactions by them.  A shopkeeper and a customer may not speak the same language, but through gestures and symbols they can quantify the value of an item, and the customer would feel cheated if the next person in line was offered the same good at a lower price.

Most of all, we trust in numbers.  We rely on them to precisely, and concisely, convey information.  Numbers are absolute, they are objective. A temperature of 10°C is the same whether it’s a mild day in Iqaluit or a chilly one in Iraq. 

But of course, the residents of those two places would not react the same way to the same temperature.  Even in a single place, the reaction to the temperature would vary with the season.  The temperature might be the same to a physicist, but not to a climatologist, who would be more interested in how it relates to seasonal averages.

Numbers are meaningless without context.  You can measure something to the millionth decimal place, but the digits are irrelevant unless you can clearly specify what you are measuring and how you are measuring it.  And that’s where the two quotes at the top of this page come in.

Quotes are rather suspect without context, too.  The original setting (and source) for the quip about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” appears to have been lost to history.  Peter M. Lee at the University of York (U.K.) has compiled numerous uses of the quote going back to the 1890s without tracking down its origin.  Regardless, the fact that the phrase is oft repeated is a reminder of many people’s distrust of, and perhaps disdain for, complicated figures.

Lee suggests that the quote may be an adaptation of a jurist’s complaint about “liars, damned liars, and expert witnesses,” and really, it is the “expert” nature of statistics that makes them suspect.  If one doesn’t fully understand how a piece of information is derived, how can one know if one is being deceived?  We don’t all have the knowledge and experience to be like City of Ottawa engineer Ted Cooper, who nearly lost his job due to his insistence that the figures produced by a property developer’s complex computer models just did not make sense – only to be congratulated by local politicians last year, when further data backed up his conclusions.

And yet, there is still that trust in the precise, objective nature of numbers.  There is still that belief that “people lie, numbers don’t.”  It makes a snappy tag-line for a TV show, but what does it mean? One might as easily say “people lie, words don’t.”  Again, it’s all about the context.

Numbers make the news on a regular basis, whether it’s the up-and-down price of gasoline, the up-and-down fortunes of your favourite hockey team, or the latest economic and employment statistics.  Context? Sometimes. 

That’s what The Numbers Game is all about: looking at the numbers that make the news, and seeing if they add up.  Seeing if the conclusions match the data, or if there are more interesting interpretations than the ones being emphasized.

Because, those of us who don’t live in the Amazon need to know which numbers we can trust, and which, well, you know that old saying about the three kinds of lies…