“There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” -Benjamin Disraeli
You know these stories. They are the ones that add up a little too easily. They reinforce “facts” that society holds up as being sacrosanct when in reality, often the sample sizes are so small that the data is really just opinion. For instance when Newsweek falsely reported that, “A woman over age 40 has a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of getting married,” which echoed through the popular news, movies, self-help books for the next 20 years. How did that make women, especially educated single women feel? Probably not very hopeful. Here are some things to look out for when spotting magic-killing “statistics”:
- When news or a statistic reports that something is definitely going to happen to you.
- If you get the feeling that the news is trying to manipulate the way you feel about yourself or your world.
- When there isn’t a link to the original data and/or you can’t find the source for the information that sounds so definitive and cruel.
- If the article or news is written in a way that takes away your sense of self-motivation or free will. Why bother dating if I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding a mate. It uses the authority of numbers to create mean thinking.
I was just listening to this Radiolab episode called “The Trust Engineers” about Facebook and how their internal teams have to deal with all sorts of modern problems such as how to understand consumer behavior online, how to solve social conundrums, but also how to use their power over the content feeds of a billion people ethically. Researchers used to feel comfortable theorizing about human behavior based on a test group of 20 college students. Now they can test a million people in different countries and perhaps find more actionable results. Whether this is good, or bad, or a bad idea is debatable.
* Which is not to say that all data is bad, but like with anything caveat emptor, or buyer beware!
How Magic Gets Killed on Your Computer
“Every day, you’re overexposed to stories that have been sucked free of
delight and mystery. That’s why you have to make such strenuous efforts
to keep your world enchanted.” -Rob Brezny
There is something very insidious about supposed social science statistics that claim, often through journalistic misuse, to know what your future will be. Another way that these statistics are used is in, “click bait headlines” defined by Wikipedia as headlines, “typically aim(ed) to exploit the “curiosity gap,” providing just enough information to make the reader curious, but not enough to satisfy their curiosity without clicking through to the linked content.” Here are some good ones pulled off the internet:
- Scientists Have Figured Out What Makes Women Attractive
- Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down to 2 Basic Traits
- 10 Ways to Improve Your Chances of Getting Published
These headlines always make you believe that there is somehow an easy, “duh” I should have thought of that way of doing something that will vastly improve your life. I fall for it all the time, and I have decided that it is the killer of creativity. My reasoning is that click bait uses one of most creative forces, our curiosity, to trick us into wasting our time. It is really a million little slaps in the face of being not rewarded for your natural and beautiful curiosity. It is the death of your curiosity baiting you simply to improve the clickthrough rate of a story, not to provide actual information.
Try to control your curiosity gap! Don’t click on the garbage and instead surf with purpose. If you are researching the origins of colored dyes set an alarm on your phone so that at 20 minutes you can hold yourself accountable. There are two other interesting methods I have come across:
- Pomodoro Technique: based on a turn of the standard kitchen timer shaped like a tomato.
- The Rule of 52 and 17: Interesting Japanese technique I have heard of buy not tried, yet.
“The Experts” Are Still Figuring it Out, Too
There is a fantastic series of books from a cool organization called Edge.Org. Each year, they ask the top scientific thinkers of the world a question. The one from 2005 was, What do you think is true, even though you can not prove it? It’s an awesome question that allows the brightest minds to speculate about their ideas publicly without needing to have any proof, or in other words, to say what direction their studies have taken them without needing to back it up with numbers. For instance, I like this quote from Yale Chief Scientist David Gelernter, “I believe (I know—but can’t prove!) that scientists will soon understand the physiological basis of the “cognitive spectrum,” from the bright violet of tightly-focused analytic thought all the way down to the long, slow red of low-focus sleep thought—also known as “dreaming.” Once they understand the spectrum, they’ll know how to treat insomnia, will understand analogy-discovery (and therefore creativity), and the role of emotion in thought—and will understand that thought takes place not only when you solve a math problem but when you look out the window and let your mind wander.”
Sometimes by opening up the questions we allow ourselves to ask, not just WHAT IS TRUE but …what I know…what I believe…what I think… and what could be true, but I can not prove…with more honest results. Newsweek could have wrote, “We believe, although we can not prove it, that a woman over age 40 has a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of getting married.” Sounds kind of funny now, doesn’t it? It is definitely more accurate.