Compared to words, numbers enjoy a certain reputation for being reliable. Daily, news stories and reports bristle with numbers, data collected, crunched, analyzed and arrayed to support any premise. Ill-equipped to decrypt the data ourselves, are we being seduced too easily by all these beautiful numbers.
Thanks to the internet, we are bombarded daily with statistics and data, beautiful numbers that frequently don’t really add up. Rather than figure out what it all means, an admittedly daunting task, we have a tendency to find then reiterate the numbers that bolster our own points of view. Ultimately, the numbers do little to clarify anything. Just one example from last week:
On October 4, the Globe and Mail published an in-depth article on income precarity. The journalist, Tavia Grant, had done a thorough job. She produced a well-written two-page spread packed with compelling data illustrated by anecdotal accounts. Highlighting what seems to be a quiet but important trend, she writes, “Many have seen opportunities for traditional, full-time jobs with benefits fade, to be replaced by part-time or temp positions without health benefits or pension plans.”
On October 10, the Globe and Mail published another article by Ms. Grant. This time she reported on new labour stats. She writes, “The country added a better-than-expected 74,100 jobs last month and – in a complete reversal of the prior month – most of the gains were in full-time positions, and in the private sector.”
So, is there a troubling trend brewing or an encouraging upswing on the horizon? Search me. I suppose I could do some research and crunch the numbers myself.
And therein lies the problem. How many of us have the computational chops to critically evaluate the veracity of the data we consume?
Although not officially diagnosed with discalculia, I admit to having a very tenuous grasp on mathematics beyond the simplest calculations. Forced to decrypt data, my mind freezes. On the upside, I know that I am not alone. Far from it.
People regularly parrot numbers they’ve gleaned through reading press accounts. A few probing questions, and their confidence evaporates.
At conferences, I’ve witnessed the hypnotic effect of numbers on audiences. The minute a speaker starts trotting out stats and data, eyes glaze. A lengthy recitation of numbers can turn an animated group of intelligent attendees into a herd of light-struck deer. Worse, really beautiful numbers can turn the most discerning group into a wowed mob of bobble-bobs.
Last year, the OECD published a report that showed, among other things, that Canadian’s have a below average grasp of mathematics. The report sparked national media coverage. The French and the Yanks fared no better. Clearly, in a world where we are bombarded daily by a glut of numeric information, we need to get up to speed.
If you’re like me, however, and you’ve given up on trying to wrap your head around the numbers, with a little effort you can still resist the lure of beautiful numbers.
- Consider the source: Do the number purveyors have a vested interest in the data presented? If so, you might want to dig up another source, preferably more than one.
- Consider the context: A number without context is useless. For example, income figures are utterly meaningless unless you know cost of living figures.
- Resist the buzz and think for yourself: If the numbers look to good to be true, they probably are. So, ask questions. Lots of questions.
Footnote to the labour story: As a source, the Globe and Mail, a Canadian national daily, seems reliable. Ms Grant also seems to be a sharp and ethical journalist. My own observations, research and personal filters, make me inclined to believe the October 4 article. Given the conclusions of the first article, the insistence on “full-time” job creation in the second published on October 10 intrigues me. Following my own advice, in a Twitter exchange, I asked Ms. Grant if the full-time jobs created were contractual or permanent. She responded by tweeting that she hopes to look into it this week. I’m looking forward to new data.