Statistics never lie, which is why one plus one equals window

In our post-truth world, marketers should stop relying on statistics to prove their worth. Instead, statistics should inform our stories rather than define them, writes David Dunn.

For many people, mathematics is the essence of fact. No matter the complexity, mathematicians pride themselves on being rigorous when solving problems, happy in the knowledge that numbers deliver irrefutable facts and indisputable proofs.

Estimations, approximations and partial truths have no place in mathematics. Unless, of course, we’re talking about statistics.

Statistics deals with “the collection, analysis, interpretation, presentation and organisation of data”. All five verbs used to define statistics are subject to human error, either intentional or unintentional, making a mockery of the idea that numbers never lie.

While statistics are there to help us understand the world, they can often be manipulated, misinterpreted and misrepresented.

With global analyst firm IDC predicting 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second for every person on the planet by 2020 (the irony is not lost on me that I’m using a statistic to talk about statistics), statistical modelling faces another big challenge – it remains a useful way for humans to make sense of data, yet it’s hard to see how analysis based on such vast volumes of data can actually paint a meaningful picture.

Such challenges are particularly evident in today’s 24-hour news cycle, where there’s limited time to properly comprehend (let alone scrutinise) the meaning of statistics in order to communicate them accurately.

Statistics have often been used, either accidentally or deliberately, to make the public believe something other than what actually is. Such statistical fallacies can be as simple as a graph that misrepresents data, resulting in an incorrect conclusion. This is often driven by unscrupulous presenters for private gain.

It’s also how 1 + 1 = window.


The problem here is the word ‘statistics’ being associated with credibility. Subconsciously, we believe a thorough study based on the rules of statistics has been undertaken.

But sometimes the opposite is true – and the danger is that if such erroneous statistics are not challenged, they become accepted as facts. Commonly in the media, even when a statistic is challenged and successfully argued against, it can be incredibly hard to remove entirely from public consciousness.

Like words, numbers can be hurtful. But I think Mark Twain put it best: “There are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

In recent years, a monumental rift has developed between statistics and the public.

Limited to a select number of news sources and mediums, statistics were used less frequently and taken as gospel during the first half of the 20th century – framing many political issues and public debates.

However, the diversification of sources and proliferation of new media channels such as television, magazines, digital content and social media rapidly increased the volume of statistics as well as the rate at which these were presented to the public. The increased volume of statistics also meant there was an increased volume of contradictory statistics. Enter mass confusion.

In 1954, American journalist Darrell Huff published his book ‘How to lie with Statistics,’ which extensively outlined errors when interpreting statistics, and how these create incorrect conclusions.

The book showed how statistical graphs could distort reality, for example, shortening charts, so differences seem larger than they are, or look more or less dramatic visually due to exaggerated or diminished scale.

Fast-forwarding to today’s era of post-truth, fake news and alternative facts, there’s a perception that the public view of statistics has dramatically changed from gospel to gossip.

So what does this means for the communications industry? A sector which for decades has been reliant on the persuasive nature of numbers, particularly when bolstering arguments against competing brands or validating a corporate viewpoint.

In short, we need to reassess our relationship with statistics.

According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2015, Australians only trust news and information when it comes from their favourite sources. Meaning statistics that appear in other sources, or are in conflict with statistics from a consumer’s favourite source, will have very little impact, if any at all.

An opinion already formed is extremely difficult to change using statistics. There’s no shift in sentiment, no perception change, and almost no chance of reaching new audiences – really, there’s little-to-no value.

One could even argue that brands and influencers relying on statistics to tell their story run the risk of damaging consumer relationships or introducing a level of distrust.

If world events such as the election of Donald Trump or Brexit have taught us anything, for better or worse, the public has caught on to the statistics stink. They want to be engaged with fresh air, not hot air.

They want to engage with brands that empathise with their circumstances, care about their opinions and demonstrate real utility. Listening and engaging on a personal, practical and emotion level, while taking their concerns seriously, is better than spitting out stale, self-serving stats.

This article isn’t meant to be a criticism of statistics per se. While there are many stats that don’t reflect reality, there are plenty of others which help us make sense of the world, moving beyond anecdotal evidence to measure issues in a tangible and objective way.

And yes, statistics still has its place within the communications industry. It should help brands assess customer satisfaction, understand public opinion, deconstruct social issues and benchmarks progress from previous years – but it should not be used as a key storytelling tool.

As communicators, we can’t make fully formed judgements and assessments based on individual ‘moment-in-time’ events. Nor can we completely ignore them simply because they’re statistically minor compared to other issues.

We need to find a healthy balance, a middle ground where statistics inform our stories rather than define them.

To paraphrase the Scottish novelist and literary critic, Andrew Lang, statistics should be used by communicators like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination.

David Dunn is an account Manager at Howorth Communications.


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