Stand-Alone Statistics

Why “numbers don’t lie” is only 50% true, half the time.

Margarita Diaz

Single Statistics Out of Context

Many of us, especially on social media, have heard the phrase “numbers don’t lie.”
Well, that’s true. They don’t lie because they can’t speak for themselves. The person presenting them is using them to tell a story, and a single number or statistic by itself cannot tell a full story.

😧 Yet all too often, one or two statistics are presented as if they can stand alone to prove an argument. They are confused with facts.

“Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.”

Mark Twain

Statistics, however, are not facts in that they cannot stand alone. They are numbers that need context and consideration of multiple factors. As a tool, they need to be interpreted and understood in order to help tell a story. On their own, they can be and often are misleading.

Questions to Ask:

So when we see one or two statistics presented to “prove a point,” let’s ask ourselves:

▪️Is the person presenting the statistic over-generalizing from the statistic?

❗️Numbers need to be representative of the particular population we are making a claim about. We can’t only study New Yorkers and cite the stats as representative of Americans. We can’t only study bananas and cite the findings as representative of fruits.

▪️Did the person presenting the statistics start with a conclusion and find statistics to support it, or work the other way around?

❗️We all have biases and when we start from a conclusion we wish to be true, it’s easier than we’d think, to find statistics to “prove” it.

▪️Did the person presenting the stats confuse correlation with causation?

❗️Just because two things are connected or occur at the same time does not mean that one CAUSES the other. Yet often, the person presenting the stats wants us to assume causation, or has inadvertently assumed so themselves.

☝🏼There is so much more to say on this but I’ll leave that to the statisticians. I’m just here to remind us all to think responsibly.

🧐 And that includes taking a closer look at statistics that get cited on a stand-alone basis to make a point.

For reflection:

❓Have you taken statistics on social media at face value, or have you taken the time to look into them yourself?

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