Monday, June 18, 2012

Damn Lies, Stats, and Global Confusion

During five months I lived in Washington, D.C., one of my favorite experiences was reading and discussing how statistics get twisted by diplomats, politicians, and more. A great article which I still have in my file cabinet is "The Truth but not the Whole Truth" by Peter Carlson. The subtitle? "In political Washington, statistics are weapons of war. That's why they get manipulated and massaged and twisted until any connection to reality is strictly coincidental."

With globalization and the increase of Internet tools such as Twitter, there are now more statistics available. This overload of information makes it even more difficult to find "truth" about issues. For example, I enjoyed this great blog from last week by the lead researcher for Oxfam about a confusing statistic on women and girls in poverty.

And here's the thing. Misused or inaccurate stats, especially in humanitarian efforts, can lead to serious consequences like not understanding where the real needs are and, thus, deaths of the most underserved.

I continue to monitor self-curated media like Twitter and occasionally find some gems. And even when I'm reading respected publications like The Economist or the Stanford Innovation Review, I still have to keep my skeptic hat on. Independent thinking, confirming facts through triangulation or cross-references, and asking questions beyond surface issues are still essential.

But I suspect that knowing what to ask is largely a product of having diverse life experiences, recognizing ambiguity and complexity in the world, and awareness of both extremes of any argument. Not easy work and very time consuming, but worthwhile.


Tracy said...

I finally read your's and Libby's final newsletter, and look at the reward I get - discovering you have a blog and twitter feed. :)

Ben said...

Glad to have you reading along. Welcome!!

Nathan said...


Reminds me of a quote our director likes to use (I'm sure he took it from someone else, though I'm not sure from who): "He uses data the way a drunk uses a lamppost: more for support than for illumination."