What Numbers Could Show You: Recommended Reading

Harford, T. (2020). How to Make the World Add Up. London: The Bridge Street Press.

Seeing what is in front of us. Sounds easy. Often it is. Sometimes it is not. What tools can help us know when what we think we are seeing is indeed what we are seeing?

You know the old saying that you can tell any lie with statistics. Another way of framing that is that, “It’s easy to lie with statistics–but it’s even easier to lie without them” (p19). By “cynically dismissing all statistics…we’re admitting defeat to (those)..who want us to shrug, give up on logic and evidence, and retreat into believing whatever makes us feel good” (p20). Instruments that help us measure can be useful–X-rays to see bones, microscopes to see bacteria, and telescopes to see far away stars (p19). Instruments don’t show us the “truth”: they can help us see more clearly. They can help us not let our emotions trick us. Our emotions are very useful, most of the time. Sometimes, we allow them to trick us into believing something because we want to, independent of the evidence facing us. Here is where evidence can help us, and numbers can provide an entryway into understanding what the evidence shows.

Hartford provides a process for using numbers to clarify what we are seeing.

  1. Search your feelings. Are you trying to convince yourself? Are you trying to see a specific answer in the evidence? You might be pulling a confidence game on yourself.
  2. Ponder your personal experience. Does what you are seeing in the numbers add up with your experience? Where is the evidence coming from? Why might your experience be different than what the evidence was describing? A different context, a different time of day, a part of a bigger pie, or a bigger pie?
  3. Avoid premature enumeration. Before accepting the interpretation of the numbers, look at what is actually being counted and how it is being counted. Often it is in the very definition of what they are measuring to answer their question that they have done something completely different than what you thought.
    • When I ask the leaders of a company how much inventory they have, they all pop off an answer. The answers can vary tenfold. Because they are measuring different things. Because of their role in the company, some see inventory as the total amount of work in process, while others see inventory as the amount of completed product that is packaged and ready to send to a specific customer. They can both be right, and defining the question and what to measure in very different ways. The problem isn’t in the definitions or the measurement, but rather in me asking the question and getting an answer, without the clarity in definitions.
  4. Be curious. Hartford then walks you through how to look at the numbers provided. How to understand the back story. Look at who is not included in the data gathered. Keep an open mind.

The point is to see what is right here to see. To see what it shows us about the question we are asking. There are lots of traps along the way. Many of them we inadvertently create for ourselves. Some of them are created by others. This process helps us use our own emotions and curiosity to understand what we are looking at before we let it influence what we see in what is right here to see. Thank you, Tim.