“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – a quotation attributed to Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and popularised in the USA by, amongst others, the author Mark Twain. (Actually, the attribution to Disraeli is open to doubt as it doesn’t appear in any of his written works)
So what does it actually mean? Well, clearly whoever said it was intending to illustrate an escalating scale of unreliability. Take the first two categories. Most of us would agree that a statement which is a lie is, for that very reason, generally regarded as unreliable. So far so good. What about ‘damned lies’ (remembering that in the 19th century the term ‘damned’ was considerably more of a swear word than it is now – and also that it carries connotations of eternal damnation). There is a school of thought that there are no degrees of lying and that even the so-called ‘white lie’ is just as much a lie as any other untrue statement. Leaving that aside, I guess you could say that a ‘damned lie’ is a lie that contains a large degree of untruth.
By a logical progression, we reach the conclusion that ‘statistics’ are the worse lies of all. Why should this be, as long as the underlying information has been collected in a responsible manner?
The answer lies in the fact that it is not the information that is false (assuming it has been correctly sourced and checked) – the key is how it has been formulated into the statistics.
To evaluate the validity of any set of statistics you need to know three crucial points:
- Size and parameters of sample2. What questions/enquiries were asked
- How were the results analysed
Generally speaking the larger the size of the sample the more reliable/accurate the results – but a survey of 60 to 70 year olds is likely to produce a very different result to one of 20 to 30 year olds.
Have you ever taken part in a survey/questionnaire where there is no answer which correctly reflects you view? This is particularly true where the survey is conducted electronically with no opportunity to state any other comment. Framing the right and representative questions is crucial to the result.
This is linked to the third point. You only get the information in answer to the questions asked! And then there are numerous ways of classifying the information.
So, no, I don’t think that statistics are the worst form of lies – but I do think they only have true value where the crucial three points are clarified.
Let’s apply this to business. Regular followers of these blogs will be aware of my belief that you need to know the ‘key numbers’ in your business. This means measuring, monitoring and acting on the results. All the points I’ve made about collecting statistics apply equally to measuring your business – and of course to promoting your business to your customers.
Do share with me how statistics have impacted on your business growth.