Statistics and Naked Ladies

Now that readers of this blog come from sources other than my Facebook friends and the original “followers” (thank you, friends and family….), I’m more curious about the stats page than I used to be. I used to only look at the number of people clicking to read the blog, but little else as there was little to see. Most of my readers came from the United States with an occasional click from Canada or Kenya, and I knew who those people were, and most of my referrers were Facebook or Yahoo. Now I have readers from over eighty different places. I’d say countries, but some of the places listed are territories, republics or insular areas and not separate countries, and I have search engine referrals, which I never had before. But here’s the thing: statistics are tricky.

I remember fall of my sophomore year of college like it was yesterday. I’d started college as a Psychology major, but after a challenging summer internship where I worked with exasperated adults and teenagers who needed to be chased across the facility’s expansive lawns I decided that maybe that path wasn’t for me.

I was already enrolled in the psychology department’s Statistics and Research Methods class and stayed registered to fulfill my liberal arts college’s math requirement. This class did terrible things to my GPA, and along with that uphill battle I’ll never forget the professor’s opening remarks: Welcome to Statistics and Research Methods. Before we go any further I need to tell you one thing that you need to remember regardless of what you learn this semester—statistics lie.

As puzzling as it was, I liked the professor’s humorous, honest spin on what is, for most, a dreaded class. This theory originated with Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish writer and philosopher in the first half of the 19th century, but held as much water in my 1993 class as it does today.

We’re currently inundated with statistics as politicians barrel toward November’s election. We have facts and forecasting. We have number of jobs created versus unemployment rates. We have numbers of Americans without healthcare and numbers of Americans foreclosing. We have approval ratings, and, of course, the opposite.

Statistics are often misused resulting in falsehoods that can be not only misleading, but also dangerous. For truth seekers it can be frustrating and mind spinning. Misuse of statistics occurs when unfavorable data is discarded, when questions are loaded or overgeneralized, when samples are biased and not random, and when data is dredged and/or manipulated. Tables of data are the most precise way of presenting information, but if statistics misuse still doesn’t produce the “right” data then…what to do?

People are naturally inclined to trust numbers over words, and we also want information in the most expeditious and attractive way possible. Besides, we like pictures and things that are pretty. People are so accustomed to graphs that they often don’t look closely and accept the information without suspicion. Truncated bar graphs, lack of scale and a y-axis that doesn’t start at zero are all some of the ways that statistics lie visually. Information can be missing, figures can be incomplete, and captions can be vague, but we fall for statistics, and we fall hard.

In school we learn that correlation does not imply causation. We learn about deductive reasoning, circular arguments, and how to discern fiction from fact. We learn that there is a multitude of ways to approach problems and solutions, and that the conversations that occurred around our family dining tables were not necessarily fact and represented only one version of a multi-faceted, multinational story.

Most of my readers come from the US, followed by Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. WordPress tells me that people in India, the Philippines, and Italy are pretty interested in what I have to say, but that was not nearly as fascinating as finding out that I also have a significant number of readers from Pakistan, Malaysia, and United Arab Emirates.

Truth be told, there were two things that boosted my readership to new proportions that extended outside of my friend and family zone. The first was my post about Joseph Bakken, the kid who cried fake gay bashing, and the second was my post about live storytelling that WordPress picked to feature as “freshly pressed” on its homepage. Then there’s now; more than half of the clicks from the past two days came from search engines.

By far the most searched term was “Joseph Bakken,” but my name and “running a half marathon without training” were also searched multiple times. It’s amazing how these interwebs work. People searched “I’m sorry,” “just pretend it’s all okay,” “fear can’t hurt you any more than a dream tattoo,” and “women wearing ponytail holders on their wrists” and were led to my blog. Bizarre. Fascinating. Cool.

One search from the past week really caught my attention though, and I can’t imagine who or why or how. Someone searched: “Missoula People trust Too Much.” Really? I wonder how many hits I’ll get from people searching “naked ladies.” Surprise!

Lots of things lie, including the title of this blog post. I did not talk about the Naked Ladies party, but trust me, there’s a lot to say. But statistics tell me that people have short attention spans and this post is already well beyond the quota for web content, so if you’ve gotten this far pat yourself on the back for not being….just a number….

Here’s a sneak preview of my next blog post which will be about the clothing swap party. Take a look at this picture, and imagine what happened when our leader said “Go!”

Image

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9 thoughts on “Statistics and Naked Ladies

  1. Statistics was a hilarious class in college, while we didn’t have the sand professor – seems they started classes similarly!
    I continue to watch and remain proud of you Jaime, you have a way of writing that truly speaks to people – may the bandwidth that you reach continue to grow and spread around the world!!

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