Editor’s note: William Dunk of William Dunk Partners is an international business consultant who has been based in Chapel Hill since 1996. He writes frequently about business and cultural issues in his column “The Global Province.” He also compiles a widely read and quoted review of corporate annual reports.
CHAPEL HILL – Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.
We know of a lady who worked for the Health Department of the City of New York who rose to the top of her profession, but who always made light of the workings of the bureaucracy and the Civil Service.
They endlessly enshrined fashionable medical ideas that simply did not hold water. Although she usually got 100s on her Civil Service tests, she would purposely get one question wrong now and again. She knew the officially anointed answer, and she knew it was dead wrong. So she answered the question correctly and was marked down as weak-headed.
A year or so later the conventional wisdom would be turned upside down, and she would be vindicated—at least in her own mind. She was as right in her way as Veterans Administration scientist Kilmer McCully, M.D, shunned by a Harvard that overly loved cholesterol theories and the vaunted Framingham studies. He claimed that folic acid had much to do with making our hearts work right: it took 20 years or so for this to become widely recognized, and for homocysteine to become part of the average physician’s vocabulary.
Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli successively cast doubt on the witches brew of numbers cooked up by statisticians, giving birth to the famous put-down “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics,” forever dooming us to take a look behind every numerical assertion. Perhaps half the time, statistics do lie, and science goes south. The most confident assertions of the experts get overturned every five years.
This Sunday’s New York Times gave aid and comfort to two recent books that sing the praises of numbers. Mark J. Penn is out with Microtrends: The Small Forces behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes. “So how does Mr. Penn identify the 75 most important microtrends in the current age? By numbers, largely those obtained through polls and surveys.” By and large, he finds, our gut instincts lead us astray. Because they provide hunches that are “inexact and often contrary to statistically determined facts.” Trouble is, the surveys he relies on are terribly flawed as well. Numbers alone are only believed by rigid ideologists. If we wanted to live our lives by the numbers, we would spend every waking moment on the phone with prophetic-sounding numerologists.
Then there’s Ian Ayres’s Super Crunchers. He’s an economist who is sure we put too much faith in intuition. Ayres says, “We are in a historic moment of horse-versus-locomotive competition where intuitive and experiential expertise is losing out time and time again to number crunching.” Again, he’s pretty good at showing where hunches went wrong, but not as honest about telling us about the massive failures that have always bedeviled economists who crunch the numbers wrong or crunch the wrong numbers.
Even if Times reviewers are smitten with the one-and-one-equals-two boys, its contributors are not as naïve. The cover article for the Sunday magazine deals with “Unhealthy Science.” See Gary Taubes in “Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 16, 2007, pp. 52-59, 74, and 78, where he demonstrates that the marvelous field of epidemiology, the essential tool of public health, can lead us far astray. He relates the saga of estrogen-hormone replacement therapy, which picked up tremendous steam in the 1990s. After the turn of the 21st century, its problems started to surface in this journal and that, although estrogen even today is still administered with a host of caveats. The initial studies stoked unwarranted enthusiasm and built a nest of health problems. Statistics can lead you astray.
Guess We Must
In fact, massaging the numbers can be useful if the results are taken with several grains of salt. We have previously commented on our friend Tom Davenport’s Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning. In it he reveals that several leading businesses have gotten a grip on the massive amounts of data they have accumulated and used it to manage processes in their businesses to good effect, often in the marketing sphere. This creative micro-management will not get you up Mt. Everest, but it surely will grind out a few more percentage points for you next quarter. In fact, we need adroit mathematics to master the vast quantities of data that pour through the portals of global corporations.
This calls into question how we reach good, useful decisions and conclusions. As much as we can, we need to drown ourselves in numbers and any other kind of data on which we can lay our hands, trying to tease out truths that will hold water. Then sit on what we’ve concluded for a few days. Then decide whether our brilliant insights still seem to hold water, or are simply half baked truths. It’s a mistake to ever rely on numbers alone. And a mistake to rely on mere hunches. We’re after informed guesses. In the face of so many bad studies and of the copious limited analyses of data that purport to be fact, truth, and insight, guess we must. There’s a need to act in the face of this sea of misinformation.
The truth is that we can never absorb enough data or ruminate long enough about our hunches. We have too much to do every day, and the data coming at us just keeps multiplying. We must always proceed to the practical without all the data at hand and with brains and instincts that are often not firing on all cylinders. So we rely on heuristics, a nice fancy term for mental short cuts and rules of thumb that we use to reach conclusions and take action based on the data and mental capacity we have at hand. Since a day still only has 24 hours or less, we mix mongrel patches of data with average powers of analysis and intuition to help us with tomorrow.
With the algorithms and formulaics of number crunchers suspect and with the Delphic pronouncements of hunchmeisters totally ungrounded in experience, we must reach elsewhere for the little tips that get us through the day. In this jumbled neo-Platonic age where unsystematic philosophy blended with mysticism has taken the stage, our intellectuals are hard pressed to craft worthy products. The slickly marketed studies and fast-talking gurus leave us wondering, and so we must resort to the simplest of homespun wisdom and practical remedies to deal with the volatility of modern life. This includes some rather basic nostrums.
So it’s all right for Wired magazine to suggest we boost our lives “the Urawaza Way” (Wired, October 2006, pp. 42-43). The Japanese TV show Ito-Ke no shukutake challenges its contestants to come up with urawaza or secret tricks that will get us through the day. One comes up with the way to become a top bowler: in your spare moments while bowling, you are instructed to point the tip of an iron to the side while practicing your swing. So as not to feel cold when getting out of your bath, suck on an ice cube, which will so distract you that you will not feel the cold caused by water evaporating on your skin. Urawaza give you small ways of dealing with very small things.
Solving Your Own Energy Crisis
As all of America, you are spending two hours getting to work, finding yourself stuck in traffic, fidgeting over the rocketing price of gasoline. While you may know that ethanol and other gas substitutes that we can produce domestically will eventually kick in at the right price and that cars with much better burn ratios will be mandated someday, you need to do something now about the chunk of change the oil companies are getting from you. A fellow in the heartland has sent out his solution over the Internet:
“I’ve been in petroleum pipeline business for about 31 years, currently working for the Kinder-Morgan Pipeline here in San Jose, CA. We deliver about 4 million gallons in a 24-hour period from the pipe line; one day it’s diesel, the next day it’s jet fuel and gasoline. We have 34 storage tanks here with a total capacity of 16,800,000 gallons. Here are some tricks to help you get your money’s worth.
“1. Fill up your car or truck in the morning when the temperature is still cool. Remember that all service stations have their storage tanks buried below ground; and the colder the ground, the denser the gasoline. When it gets warmer gasoline expands, so if you’re filling up in the afternoon or in the evening, what should be a gallon is not exactly a gallon. In the petroleum business, the specific gravity and temperature of the fuel (gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, ethanol and other petroleum products) are significant. Every truckload that we load is temperature-compensated so that the indicated gallonage is actually the amount pumped. A one-degree rise in temperature is a big deal for businesses, but service stations do have temperature compensation at their pumps.
“2. If a tanker truck is filling the station’s tank at the time you want to buy gas, do not fill up; most likely dirt and sludge in the tank is being stirred up when gas is being delivered, and you might be transferring that dirt from the bottom of their tank into your car’s tank.
“3. Fill up when your gas tank is half-full (or half-empty), because the more gas you have in your tank the less air there is and gasoline evaporates rapidly, especially when it’s warm. (Gasoline storage tanks have an internal floating ‘roof’ membrane to act as a barrier between the gas and the atmosphere, thereby minimizing evaporation.)
“4. If you look at the trigger you’ll see that it has three delivery settings: slow, medium and high. When you’re filling up do not squeeze the trigger of the nozzle to the high setting. You should be pumping at the slow setting, thereby minimizing vapors created while you are pumping. Hoses at the pump are corrugated; the corrugations act as a return path for vapor recovery from gas that already has been metered. If you are pumping at the high setting, the agitated gasoline contains more vapor, which is being sucked back into the underground tank so you’re getting less gas for your money.”
Now, we realize all this will not do much for Al Gore. But it will get you a few miles down the road.
The Inverted Pyramid
We have long said that William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is the best guide around for anybody who wants to craft clear, accessible prose. But writer Phillip Yaffe, who has degrees in physics and mathematics, adds quite a bit to the mix. For he knows that scientists of many stripes and experts in almost every field turn out gibberish for us to decode, and his “How to Improve Your Writing By Standing on Your Head,” in Ubiquity offers a partial cure. He holds up as a model the inverted pyramid of newspaper writing where you waste no time getting to the point. You put the gist in the first couple of paragraphs, packing in critical details, so that the article can be cut if necessary, but, more importantly, so as not to lose the reader. Bottom line: Get it said in the lead, clearly and compactly.
Today Yaffe is a marketing specialist in Belgium. But, it should be noted, he once worked for the Wall Street Journal, the temple of fine, concise writing that has the knack of making complicated topics rather accessible. Much more so that other newspapers. This is where he learned what writing’s all about.
In the face of complex, often mistaken studies and theories, we may look for urawaza to get us through the maze of daily life, imbibe gas tips to wrestle with high energy costs, or adopt Wall Street Journal-style to make our thoughts accessible and understandable to others. For sure, if the studies that we read in academic and scientific journals had to pass Yaffe’s inverted pyramid test and Zinsser’s clear writing notions, we would have less complication and less bad science with which to deal. But meanwhile we must marshal all the evidence we can get in a hurry—statistical and anecdotal—and combine it with our best hunches in order to get ourselves over the next hill.