Lies, damn lies and statistics

'Statistics can be used to persuade anyone to do what you want without knowing it.' 
Image taken from onefamily.ie -
'Statistics can be used to persuade anyone to do what you want without knowing it.' Image taken from onefamily.ie -

Anyone who is interested in business – and that includes not just commerce, but the business of life – should have a keen interest in statistics.

I was one of the lucky ones. I had an economics professor at university who taught us what statistics were really used for. Not algorithmic-based computations about what the future would cost: that went on in a proper statistics class.

What he taught us was what is now referred to as “fake news”: how to spot it, how it is used to manipulate people and how to do it.

He often appeared to come to class “under the influence” and the largest boys in the class always sat in the front row, just in case. That is when I began to understand what
in vino veritas meant. Not only did we learn about the value of unity in preventing accidents (he never actually did fall, although he did stumble a couple of times, and it was one class where no one fell asleep) but we learned that paying attention to other people’s weaknesses could result in your own advantage.

No one failed economics, because we had to use our own resources, read, discuss, do research, to get through the curriculum, because we could not be sure that what he was saying was real. We had to verify everything.

An example I remember was a solemn statement that: “It is not true that the RCMP built the Rocky Mountains.” It was only long afterwards that I realised what he was saying was not to assume that because someone wore a uniform and flashed a badge that they knew the law or could move (or build) mountains.

We learned that unwaged work was not profitable. It was not slaves who built the pyramids of Egypt, either. It was valuable skilled and very knowledgeable engineers who knew non-Euclidean geometry, advanced calculus and algorithms and how to use them.

So what about business? Well, construction is business. So are trade unionism, and medicine, and education. Commerce gets in there, as well as sports and hospitality, and, in case you didn’t notice it, politics. All trying to gain power and control over your thoughts and minds and pocketbooks.

Let me give you an example. One of the most successful business maxims is "volume." If you can get thousands of people to contribute a small amount on a regular basis, you will end up wealthier than someone who sells one diamond and it is gone forever. Remember, the “missing ball” contest made a fortune until envy passed a law against it (for gambling).

What does a lottery sell? Hope. Think about it. This is a tough world. There is an endless market for hope. If you can sell hope to a lot of people at $5 a shot, you will double your earnings every day. Work out the statistics.

Prof taught us that there will always be people who will try to control and manipulate us. Get used to it. Learn to spot it and deal with it. That is what politics, religion, economics and sports are built on. Like a pharmacist’s knife, sometimes it is for your advantage, sometimes it is for theirs. As Baroness Nancy Sears of the London School of Economics famously said: “Learn to distinguish where there are differences.”

“Statistics,” Prof said “can be used to persuade anyone to do what you want without knowing it.” I have watched that happen ever since.

If you want control, fear is one of the easiest weapons.

Use of numbers, we learned, is built into your brain. From ancient times odd numbers, especially the number three, have had a psychological impact on people’s brains. Ever notice how many people appear on those government “information” panels on TTT and BBC talking about what they want you to do about covid19? Three. Everything from the three blind mice to the three musketeers to ikebana’s three flowers to the principles of aesthetics, to the many threes that appear in early religious beliefs and myths and folk tales Three strikes and you are out.

“Question everything.” he told us.

“Research shows that…” is one of the phrases he taught us to use as a manipulator. Or “according to science…” But never say who did the research or who the scientists are. Use percentages. Fifty per cent more people working offshore were stricken with prostate cancer this year than last year, but no one mentions that only two people got prostate cancer last year.

Displacement is another means of manipulation. In world news, politicians’ exposure as corrupt over the last year is overshadowed by how well they protected their borders against economic refugees.

And the statistics they use are backed up by unknown “science” that is never identified. So concern over the battle against cancer – breast cancer, or pancreatic cancer, which claimed 819 deaths in the former instance and close to 300 in the latter out of a total of 1,989 in 2018 for example – are forgotten as the press concentrates on only the deaths from covid19, neglecting to make a distinction where there are differences, such as how many die from covid alone and how many of those who died also had advanced breast cancer or prostate cancer and were going to die from that.

Does this have the result of drawing funding and resources away from cancer research and focusing it on the far less deadly disease?

Statistically, only less than two per cent who get it actually die from covid19, whereas 22.9 per cent who get it die from cancer.

So does good marketing send desperate cancer researchers now to raise money for covid19?

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"Lies, damn lies and statistics"

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