June 16, 2019

Statistics Prove Statistics Can Prove Anything

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I’ve used this line before. It’s difficult to pin down exactly where or from whom specifically this quote came from, but the real problem lies in the understanding of statistics. I like the explanation found on Quora.com. It reads: “Statistics is only the representation of an empirical fact, a connection between abstract representations of real world concepts. By itself, it can prove nothing except the dry statement of an idealized probability. What the public often overlooks is that correlation does not imply causation.”

Some in Maine seem to be upset by some numbers recently published in a local newspaper’s opinion column that Wildlife Watching in Maine generates $1.3 billion in revenue to the state. Can this be so?

Not exactly, if you have a basic understanding of how the numbers (statistics) are manipulated by anyone to prove anything.

In December of 2017, the Portland Press Herald published an article that stated that according to the Maine Office of Tourism, the state took in revenues of $8.8 billion from general tourism. Keep in mind here that we are not working on any set definition of “tourism.” That is the first problem. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years examining and researching surveys, questionnaires, polls, etc. and there exists a lot of gray area…by design. This allows for anyone to use those “statistics” to prove anything their little heart desires. I do not have time or space to write the book required to cover the dynamics of surveys and statistics.

But for the sake of this discussion, let’s go with the $8.8 in tourism revenue. According to the same Portland Press Herald (PPH) article, of that $8.8 billion, 28% of 1,407 tourists surveyed said they preferred wildlife watching “to all other touring activities, such as enjoying ocean views or fall foliage or sightseeing.” (is this a scientific survey?)

What does that mean? Not much really, for two very basic reasons. One, we don’t know what constitutes “tourism” as it pertains to the Maine Office of Tourism. Two, given no other statistical data, we don’t know how many of whom preferred what, when, where, and how. Is 28% of the total tourism revenue generated average nationwide? Below average? Above average? Who conducted the “query” the Office of Tourism refers to and who paid for it.? Just what exactly is represented by this 28%????

Are you following along?

If 28% of Maine tourists, preferred wildlife watching over all others, did 100% of those 28% participate in Wildlife Watching which contributed to the $8.8 billion? Who knows. 28% of those surveyed may “prefer” wildlife watching but perhaps only 2% actually did it. By the way, what constitutes “wildlife watching?”

Anyone can do anything with these numbers. Taken at face value (if that fits my narrative), 28% of $8.8 billion dollars is nearly $2.5 billion. Therefore, I could say that wildlife watching in Maine generates around $2.5 billion a year in tourist-generated revenue. Is that accurate? Is that honest?

For the numbers nerd, you can take any of these base numbers and percentages and create anything you wish.

A few years ago, I spent a great deal of time studying, in order to fully and honestly understand, how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts their surveys in which they dazzle us with all kinds of statistics about hunting, fishing, wildlife watching, etc. for each and every state. I believe this is done or used to be done, every 5 years.

Aside from the muddled information I’ve given you above used to manipulate statistics, the biggest takeaway I got was how questions were asked and then how answers were handled according to their application in compiling data.

For example: If John Doe decides to take a lifelong big game hunting trip to Western Montana, and while he is there is confronted with a survey taker, he might be asked questions like: Why did you come to Montana?; Did you visit Yellowstone Park?; Did you see any wolves?; Did you go fishing?; Did you stay in a motel?; Did you hire guide services?; Did you go hiking? etc.

As you can see, the sky is the limit on what questions could be asked of a “Tourist.” In this case, if John Doe answered yes to all of these questions, after being discovered he came for a hunting trip, then the data would be recorded that he participated in all those activities. If John Doe spent $50,000 on his trip, then the data could, and most often is, manipulated to state that John Doe spent $50,000 hunting; that he spent $50,000 to visit Yellowstone Park to watch wolves and go hiking; that he spent $50,000 to go fishing, stay in a motel, hire guides, buy gas, buy food. I think you get the picture.

This is how it all works. This is why I take a very vocal stand against governments or any other organization using surveys and the like to draw conclusions. That’s a form of Scientism and outcome-based VooDoo Science. The results presented are dishonest and politically driven.

When addressing the comments of people with political agendas, recall the simple statement that statistics used to make such claims can prove: “nothing except the dry statement of an idealized probability.” 

It might even be more accurate to call it an “idealized POSSIBILITY.”

And, just remember. More than likely the person parroting the numbers is only repeating those given them by other echo-chambers who know no better. That’s why it pays to know and understand your resource for information. There’s more to it than it just sounds good.

Share