Saturday, June 27, 2009

54% of the People Who Read This Have Nothing Better To Do. 42% Percent Will Be Sorry They Took Time To Read It. 4% Percent Can’t Read.

By John Ramsey Miller

Statisticians are working overtime to furnish us with statistics. The world runs on numbers and those numbers types are never going to slow down. As long as things happen, they will continue to crunch and spout. Long after we tire of listening to the results of their crunchings, they will be sitting in cubicles around the world comforted by their calculations. Even if they have to re-crunch old numbers and regurgitate them. And the numbers are always changing even as society changes.

In my world, Yahoo is the largest publisher of insipid crunchings. The top ten anything you want to know about will appear there on the home page along with the most frightening news available, the cutest animals, or just plain boring celebrity news they can accumulate. Want to know the top ten worst-smelling cities on earth? The top ten friendliest hell holes, The cutest kitten’s top ten favorite planets? How many dogs just like Obama’s people will be sell to people who want to be just like the President, but without the ears. The top ten best smelling decaying objects? It’s all there because somebody thinks we want to read the lists in order to improve our lives. They’ll never give you the names of the stat-crunchers until they want to list the top-ten-most-beaten-up statisticians in the United States. I’ve had way too much of this endless top tenning. It’s time for about 90% of statisticians to be in the unemployment lines.

Here’s another one that has stuck in my mind for eight point three percent of my adult life. A few years ago some scientists somewhere announced that fully ten percent of the matter in the Universe was unaccounted for. I still can’t wrap my mind around that one. How many scientists did it take to go out and weigh the mass of the Universe, to count the atoms and decide that a full ten percent was simply gone? Maybe it’s in the pants pockets of God, like so much dryer lint. Or maybe he made Paris Hilton’s ego with it. I don’t know a lot about science, but I have a God-given bullshit meter that goes off several times a day. I guess the scientists who made that statement will eventually sober up, or they will discover which Black Holes have sucked up the missing matter. I didn’t take it and I don’t really care who did.

I guess everybody has a calling in life, but list compilers are called from the ranks of accountants and actuaries who want more excitement, some way to introduce creativity, into their dull, number-generating careers.

Okay, I’m being unfair to statisticians. Some people need the comfort of numbers to make decisions. Me, I just run blindly from one situation to another, flying by the seat of my pants. I’m an emotional creature and I don’t generally make sound decisions based in reality, or on numbers. My wife will attest to this seventy percent of the time.

My business partner and I once hired a full-time statistician for our ad agency. I can’t remember why. It was doomed from the start. Perhaps it is like the time we got loaded and bought a quarter dozen pythons for our reception area. Seemed like a good idea at the time. We often did things like that. I guess we hired him because we were trying to kill the party reputation created by the festive snakes our clients were greeted by. That boy flat bubbled over and lit up like white phosphorous when he had new numbers to present to us or to a client. Clients love numbers that show growth. They hate numbers that point to stagnation or a reversal in sales. A good statistician can make the numbers sing his tune. Instead of ninety-nine-point nine percent of the readers of the newspaper didn’t act on our ad. Our guy explained that one-point-one percent of the people who read the newspaper acted on our ad, so it was amazingly effective. Stats were made to be spun like a drunk square-dance girl. Okay spinning stats could explain why one day coffee drinking is good for you, and the next it will shorten your life.

The truth is that I have no pressing use for that missing matter, so I vote we stop funding scientists to look for it and ask them to do something more constructive with the 90% of matter we have. One thing’s for certain, if it was my matter, I’d never be able to find anything close to ninety percent of it at any given time. Right now, the top ten things I can’t find [to save my life] would include my cell phone, phone book, car keys, and my electric razor.


  1. First of all, the mass of the universe thing is physics, not statistics. Second, how can you be so confident that it is bullshit when you know nothing about it?

    Here's some info:

  2. I always roll my eyes at the Yahoo lists too, John! Btw, the discussion of dark matter reminds me of Umberto Eco's line in Foucault's Pendulum: "If two things don’t fit, but you believe both of them, thinking that somewhere, hidden, there must be a third thing that connects them, that’s credulity."
    I don't buy into the alternative theories to dark matter either(based on quantum mechanics and/or modified Newtonian dynamics); they're all theories for things we can't measure yet. My "show me" skepticism may be attributed to the fact that one of my parents is a physicist--but an experimentalist, not a theoretician.

  3. I agree with 97% of this post. It's definitely one of my top 10.

  4. John, you seem to spend half your time professing to 50% of your beliefs while the rest of your post is clearly the remaining portion. Either way, you always tend to cover both sides of the issue in a fraction of the time. Bottom line: it all adds up.

  5. John Dishon,
    I'll let you worry about the missing matter. It's really good to know you have 99% too much time on your hands. Why don't you write about it. It would be a best seller to Scientists with too much time on their hands. It isn't the sort of thing that interests me, or 87% of the people who come here to read my clap-trap. And ten percent is statistics, about physics.

  6. As Mark Twain once said:

    "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

  7. I once read a knowledgeable source that said 42.8% of all statistics were made up. Probably including that one.