Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

liesMark Twain, one of my favorite people to quote, is typically attributed with the quote:

There are 3 kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.

My sophomore math teacher was quite fond of saying “Numbers don’t lie.” but that’s a lie. Numbers, when they are being evaluated, assessed, and analyzed are subject to interpretation and, when done badly, the numbers do lie, don’t they?

This is an important issue for many of us because we measure things. Another famous saying is from management consultant Peter Drucker who said “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  We have a lot of things to manage, so we measure a lot of things.

I blame Mark Twain for my distrust of numbers, or maybe the guy who coined the phrase “comparing apples to apples”.  The truth is I do believe in truth in numbers, but I also think there must be a thorough and robust methodology to how anything is measured and reported.

A few years ago, a colleague from my Minneapolis office called me.  He was planning to visit St. Louis as asked if I could recommend an area that was safe.

“Safe?” I asked.  “Let me guess. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you remember reading about how dangerous St. Louis is regarding violent crime, right?”

He sheepishly answered, “Yes.”

As a lifelong St. Louisan and passionate lover of my city, I launched into a diatribe about the inaccuracy of those violent-crime reports.  Anyone in St. Louis can surely appreciate my position here. Every year, these most-dangerous-city reports are released and every year, we bemoan their inaccuracy. The local news sources all carry the stories.  There are funny t-shirts that mock the situation and even The Onion publishes satire about our situation.  (Personally, I think The Onion picks on us, probably because we rise to the bait every single time.)

Anyway.

It isn’t all laughs. It’s serious. These reports impact the economic well-being of the city I love. We all know how important reputation is – each of us cares about our own reputations. The reputation of a city is pretty important too.  We wish to tell the world that this is a good place to live, a great place to raise a family. We want companies to expand their presence here, open or expand offices here. We want organizations to host their conventions here. We want to be a REAL BOY. (That’s a Pinocchio reference. See how it ties in with the title and image of this post? I offer my blog posts served up with a neat little bow!)

WE COULDA BEEN A CONTENDER…. we coulda been somebody.  (There. I slid in another quote, this time from On The Waterfront, which some of you knew but maybe not everyone. There is no image for this one in my blog post, people. Geez, I can’t be expected do everything myself, can I?)

Given the weather issues (a polar vortex – sounds so sci-fi, doesn’t it?), I posted a status earlier today joking about St. Louis making it into headlines all over the world for something other than being the most dangerous city. Someone local replied to my status to clarify that the whole dangerous-city-thing is overstated which, clearly, I already knew because I’m from St. Louis and we all know. IT’S THE REST OF YOU WHO NEED TO LEARN IT! The person who left that reply also linked me to a video I hadn’t seen before – just a little five-minute thing that has some civic-pride messaging, but also talks about this dangerous-city thing and explains why it’s misstated. It’s as clear, simple, and visual a manner as I have ever seen so I’m sharing.

I want you to know that St. Louis is a swell place, but the main point of this blog post is to talk about how statistics can be dangerously misleading (see what I did there?) if the methods for analyzing and reporting out are not robust and properly scrutinized.  Beyond what is covered in this video, there’s more to criticize. These reports of the most dangerous cities aren’t even comprehensive. For example, in 2013, the data for Chicago, Las Vegas, and Honolulu, to name just a few examples, were not included because their crime reporting didn’t meet the FBI criteria.

Ends up the world is drawing conclusions about St. Louis based not only on incomplete data, but on comparisons that are terribly skewed.

When you’re looking at numbers, ask questions.  Learn whether there are flaws in the methodology.  Frankly, I’d rather not have any measurement at all than have wildly skewed reports that lead me to draw inaccurate conclusions.

Come to St. Louis and we’ll have a coffee and discuss it further. It’s perfectly safe.  Very cold, but perfectly safe.

One last shout-out for St. Louis.  This morning, I had people from Sydney, Buenos Aires, London, and Boston message me to say “Hey! Your city was on the front page of my newspaper today!” Go, St. Louis!

The biggest danger here today is frostbite.

Stay warm!

stl storm

 

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