Friday, June 17, 2005

September 2004

Be Skeptical of Selective Statistics

By Matt Baron

You may have heard it said before that each of us is a star in our own life’s story, but merely a background character in others’ lives. We might be a strong supporting player or simply play a cameo role. It all depends on who is behind the camera.

A humorous spin on this perspective is “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.” The two characters merit only passing mention in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but playwright Tom Stoppard took that fragment and in 1967 expanded it to create an entirely different tale.

The same principle plays out with the stories we tell, whether in the media or at the dinner table. The spinmeisters involved in the race for U.S. president load us up with varying emphases on various topics, from tax cuts to job creation to the ongoing military operations in Iraq.

In sports, you can use the same body of statistics to prop up or tear down a player. The Chicago White Sox have a player named Jose Valentin who is one of the top home run hitters in the American League, particularly among shortstops. He’s also struck out more often than most players, batted for a paltry average, and made more than his share of defensive mistakes.

So which Jose Valentin do you want to talk about?

In business, you can use the same data to hail a company’s growth or shine a light on its struggles. A classic example is when a business is said to have experienced a surge or decline in profits compared to a previous period of time.

So, for example, instead of raking in $80 million of profit, Company XYZ profits by “only” $40 million. Meanwhile, Company ABC-azon reduces the amount it loses from a jillion to merely $100 billion. What a success!

Of course, those are extreme examples, but you get the idea.

Recently a newspaper reported on the number of murder rate in a major Midwestern city. It focused on persisting trends in which more people were killed during the hot summer months than other times of the year. Contained in the same story—buried, really—was brief mention that the number of homicides so far this year was significantly lower than the same year-ago period.

The story very easily could have focused on that drop, with the unsurprising correlation of heat and violence relegated to background character status.

Keep Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in mind as you approach your next story. Those “throw-away” remarks and minor mentions may contain the kernel of the less-known but more interesting tale to tell.

Earlier this year, a Chicago television station missed its Rosencrantz and Guildenstern opportunity. The station broadcast a segment on what they reported to be an upward trend in planned C-sections.

In the report, a source said that physicians and nurses comprise a large proportion of those who opt for planned C-sections (as opposed to the more common emergency C-sections). Instead of examining that intriguing angle—after all, these are the same medical personnel who are often caring for birthing mothers—the story simply moseyed along.

Here’s where the reporter could have asked some questions: What proportion of planned C-sections are done on doctors and nurses? And why is that?

Beyond that oversight, the story also failed to provide basic context, such as the percentage of births that are C-section (it’s about 25 percent) and the percentage of C-sections that are planned—an amazing omission when you consider the entire thrust of the story was that they were on the rise.

BARON BIT: For an engaging, if politically loaded, look at federal spending, check out and click on the Oreo animation. I cannot endorse or condemn the content, because I do not know enough about the background behind the figures cited by Ben Cohen of ice cream purveyor Ben & Jerry’s. But the illustrations he uses in the animation are an excellent lesson in how we all as storytellers can simplify complex topics.

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