iSixSigma

Statisticism

After an extended holiday from the blog and from work in general, I have to say I’m glad to be back. I hope everyone out there in isixsigma land enjoyed the season as much as I did.

I started a project in the U.K. this week. I’m fascinated by the differences in culture one finds when one travels outside his or her home territory and I always make point of watching the local news to try and gain insight into the top concerns of the locals. This trip has proven to be particularly interesting relative to such observations.

Most Americans are probably familiar with reality television and some are certainly viewers of a show titled “Big Brother”. If you’re not familiar with this show, its premise is to assemble a group of strangers in a house and have them engage in a strange sort of competition to see who can outlast the others. While I’m not a viewer of the American version of the show, the U.K. version got my attention this week as it has created a firestorm of controversy. It seems one of the contestants made some derisive remarks about a housemate who is Indian. The comments have drawn cries of protest across Britain, provoked street marches in India, and even created a political rift to which both Indian and British government officials have been forced to respond. Having heard the comments I certainly think they were inappropriate but the ignorant and perhaps prejudicial comments of a single individual on a reality television show hardly strike me as justifiable cause for an international “racism” crisis. It’s TV people, get a grip on yourselves!

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What is most fascinating about this is the thought that while it appears easy to get the international community stirred up about an issue based on a single incident, we never see protests when bad statistics are used in the media, or most anywhere else for that matter.

First of all, it strikes me as incredible that we’re continuously bombarded with the notion that singular events apply universally to the entire population. Such extrapolation can be seen on news channels world wide on most any given day. Ice melts in Antarctica and we’re all told we’ll be overcome by the rising tide of global warming in a matter of years. One prejudiced remark, on a television show designed to create strife between contestants, and suddenly the whole country is labeled racist. Based on reports, I guess we can safely assume the record snows in the Western U.S. this year indicate the ice age is upon us; right?

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And what about correlation? Does an increase in the number of shark bites off the coast of Florida indicate that sharks have developed a taste for human flesh? Or could it be that sharks have always been there and now that more people are entering the water annually, we have more shark bites. Better yet, maybe the species is determined to exact revenge for not being paid royalties from the movie “Jaws”.

The point is, why do we always have to have a fantastic explanation for events which are most often quite within the range of probability for a given set of circumstances? I guess the proliferation of news channels competing for advertising dollars drives the sensationalism but they only sell what the general public is willing to buy. Maybe the answer is to design TV’s that require a 15 minute math lesson when you turn them on before you can move on to other programming. Or maybe we just need to turn off the television altogether. After all, statistics confirm that everyone who watches TV will die.

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Who will join me in this battle against Statisticism? Let’s coordinate events in cities across the country and burn our remote controls in effigy. Even better, write in to the blog with your statistical abuse stories. We should at least make an effort to share a chuckle over the matter.

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Comments 2

  1. aint that easy

    Trees kill a lot more skiers than sharks kill swimmers. Hence the latter makes the national news, and the former does not. People can thus begin to perceive the uncommon as common, and vice versa.

    Human perception is an odd thing. I actually had a participant in a seminar I was teaching ask, "How come I always find my car keys in the last place I look?"

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  2. Robert Butler

    Actually, you have a lot of company and there are any number of books out there that have covered this ground.

    1. How to Lie With Statistics
    2. How to Tell the Liars from the Statisticians
    3. Tainted Truth
    4. Flaws and Fallacies in Statistical Thinking
    5. Visual Display of Quantitative Information-Tufte- esp. the chapters – Graphical Integrity, Sources of Graphical Integrity, and Chartjunk
    6. Visual Explanations – Tufte – esp. the chapters Visual and Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Making Decisions and Explaining Magic: Pictorial Instructions and Disinformation Design

    How to Lie With Statistics is well known but it is too "funny" in the sense that it doesn’t give you real life examples of the points it is trying to make. It is for this reason I prefer Flaws and Fallacies in Statistical Thinking by Campbell and the Tufte books because they do show what these things look like in real life.

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