A victory of stats

What would we do without statistics? Newspapers would actually have to report on events, sociologists would talk about feelings and baseball commentators would have almost nothing to say. Such is the state of the world.

Statistics are particularly appropriate to our digital age where every keystroke, email, website visit, credit card purchase, auto trip, plane ride, and so forth can be tracked, catalogued, correlated, calculated, compared, analyzed and data-mined for patterns. Today’s computer power and storage capacity is so great keeping all this information for eternity poses no problem, that is unless the electrical grid fails and humanity falls off the proverbial cliff.

In the meantime, stats dominate. They fill reams of paper before congressional committees, form the basis of economic policy, drive automated buy-and-sell transactions on Wall Street, inform law enforcement on success and failure, predict elections, reveal your chances of winning the lottery and calculate the odds of doomsday’s arrival. In other words, lots of useless crap that we’re told is terribly important but that most everyone ignores.

Does it matter what breakfast cereal most people will eat today? I only eat a high-fiber, low-carb shredded-cardboard-like brand with a name like Heritage Fiber. That 13.6 percent of America will eat Kellogg’s Corn Flakes each morning makes no difference to me. Nor does knowing 72.3 percent will begin brushing their teeth on the upper left side or that only 61.5 percent use soap in the shower. (Note: these stats are completely imaginary, but did you notice how well they got your attention and how easily you believed them?)

We love stats even though we ignore them. Stats give us ground, something we can believe in while we go about our daily lives making stupid decisions based on how we feel moment to moment. When is the last time you reminded yourself that studies show 83 percent of ice cream is sold to obese Americans as you took a bite of that Hagen Dazs Almond Crunch Vanilla Milk Chocolate-covered 260-calorie carbohydrate laden treat at the movie theater while watching the film voted as “most intense” by 61 percent of America’s film critics? Odds are 92.4 percent the answer is “never.”

Herein lies the failure of stats: on an individual basis stats are useless. Individual human beings are particular and complex while stats are general and simple. As a predictive tool stats are over-rated and while their application to decision-making might prove to be useful in hindsight in the aggregate, they offer little in the way of knowing if I will eat cardboard this morning. Sure, I might open the cupboard and look at the carefully designed box intended to stimulate my salivary glands but perhaps the thought of applewood-smoked bacon will pop into my mind instead. Or watermelon. Or peanut butter on toast. Or perhaps I’ll lose my appetite altogether and write a column. Like I said, human beings are complex.

We don’t care about statistics, but we like to follow the herd. Seeing our fellow humans doing something interests us and provides a much more reliable predictor of behavior than stats. Stats can confirm our predilections and responses as a group, but the success of websites like Trip Advisor proves that the simple opinions of ordinary people mean more than stats in the conduct of our lives.

Here’s the bottom line: 99.9 percent of stats are for zombies.

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