Lies, damned lies…and statistics

There are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Or so said Mark Twain. I’ve been getting more and more intrigued by how we analyse data and make decisions as I’ve moved into a manager’s role at Enviros, and find myself in the position of making decisions with increased consequence and inherent complexity.

And because it’s been awhile since I’ve had to do any math harder than my taxes (which Turbo Tax has basically resolved for me), I went out and bought a book on statistics. Nothing puts you to sleep at night quite like trying to read through “standard deviation” and “regression analysis” chapters.

What did strike me was how much information we currently have at our fingertips. And yet, we continue to make remarkably poor decisions about everything from how we spend taxpayer’s money to how we manage endangered species. A fellow by the name of Clifford Stoll said the following;

Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.

Recently the City of Calgary raised a rainbow coloured flag to show solidarity with the gay community over Russia’s policies. It sparked a “poll” of Global Calgary readers that asked the following question, and had two distinct answers.

The question was “Do you agree with the City of Calgary’s decision to raise the pride flag at City Hall?”. One possible answer was “Yes, it’s an important message of solidarity”, the other being “No, the Olympics have nothing to do with sexuality”.

First of all, any poll that you can opt into is not a statistically valid sample of the population. Second, the questions are skewed in that they can both be true. And it lays out the premise in the “Yes” answer that raising the flag was about solidarity, but then the premise in the “No” answer is that it’s suddenly about sexuality. Nice work Global. It might be worth hiring some pollsters to help you out with your sampling of Calgarians views and opinions.

For a few examples of really good uses of stastical analysis, check out the following;

If you haven’t seen it yet, this TED talk from Hans Rosling is fantastic.

And another excellent use of data that I stumbled upon recently was the 2014 Gates Foundation Annual Letter. Definitely worth a read through.

In the meantime, you should start to question everything someone tells you (particularly news organizations) that reads anything along the lines of “68% of Calgarians don’t support flying the pride flag”.

What do you think?

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