I was never that good at statistics in high school. I was great with other forms of math, but stats and probability didn’t really click with me until later in college. My statistics teacher was always frustrated when, after giving up on a problem, I’d answer: “It’s 50%, it either happens or it doesn’t.”
That answer wasn’t necessarily wrong, but it definitely wasn’t right.
I tried to frame my answer in the right way such that it would seem like I was getting to the right solution, even though I was nowhere near correct. It’s sad, but this is happening more and more in every field – politics in particular.
How did we get to a place where everything is an opinion and all opinions have to be respected, this is ridiculous— Helen 侯-Sandí (@helenhousandi) August 6, 2017
I knew a really interesting start up years ago that suffered from this phenomenon. They were focused on a direct-to-consumer product offering and trying (it turns out erroneously) to emphasis word-of-mouth referrals above all other forms of sales. The result: they had a great product that no one knew existed.
At one of their annual investment meetings, though, I watched the CEO explain this to his backers in the most bizarre of ways:
Well, we’re still working hard to reach out, but the past 6 months have seen tremendous growth! We’ve increased our customer base by 100%. For those who aren’t numbers geeks like me, that means we’ve doubled our customers in the past 6 months. Things are going great!
There is nothing in that statement, numbers-wise, that is untrue. His framing of the statement as “tremendous growth,” however, is one of the most blatant lies I’ve ever witnessed in person. The company had grown. The company had doubled its customer base over 6 months.
The secret: they only had 2 paying customers.
Two. Consumers. Paying $5/month for a subscription. Yes, the CEO was accurate in explaining the growth rate, but a $10/month revenue stream doesn’t go very far to pay the bills. His investors, however, were in the dark. They just had his statistics (again, accurate numbers) to go on and the tone with which he framed things.
I was told when I was younger that the easiest way to see if a politician is lying is that his mouth is moving. Now, I don’t always expect politicians to lie on purpose, but I do expect them to spin otherwise objective facts to fit whatever subjective narrative best supports their position. Take this tweet and counterpoint as an example.
–average job growth in the 9 months since your dad's election: 179K— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) August 6, 2017
–average job growth in the 9 months before your dad's election: 199K https://t.co/vkdMoIoxJX
The fact: new jobs would have been created under any president to win the election by the very nature of how our economy works and the fact that it’s been growing with a somewhat consistent rate over the past few years.
The spin: this growth not only due to the current president in office, but is also somehow better than the growth it would have been otherwise. 1
The counter-spin: while there has been growth, the rate of growth has slowed since the election, likely in a way related to the president, his policies, or some other economic uncertainty triggered by either.
All that matters here, though, is the fact. The spin is meaningless: growth would have occurred with or without President Trump. The counter-spin is meaningless: while a decreased growth rate could be due to the president, there are hundreds 2 of other factors at play as well.
We’ve come to a moment in our history where people readily confuse facts with the narrative surrounding them. It’s become increasingly difficult to discern if a statement or report is delivering a cold, hard fact or if it’s conveying an opinion or “deeply-held belief.” The mainstream media is partly to blame for this. So is social media. So are celebrities (political and otherwise) opining in public through either of those (or other) channels.
It is a fact that the Earth is round. That the Earth orbits around the sun. That America landed men on the moon. That the average temperature of the Earth is increasing at a rate far more dramatic than in any recorded history (through either human observation or fossil evidence).
These are all provable facts.
Still, there are people who legitimately believe the Earth is flat and that anyone stating otherwise is voicing an alternative opinion. There are those who believe the sun orbits the Earth. Some who hold on to the belief the moon landing was faked. Those who believe global climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China 3 meant to trick American into losing money and bankrupting the economy.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
These are biased opinions, some of which leverage real statistics and try to paint a new narrative in support of, often, idiotic and selfish agendas. And they are legion in today’s world. They are so numerous, in fact, that we’re taught to offer these opinions the same level of respect we do the facts they pervert.
Facts are just opinions everyone accepts. It wasn’t that long ago it was considered a fact that the world was flat, with all kinds of proof.— John James Jacoby (@JJJ) July 13, 2017
I will never lose respect for someone who takes stances like this, but I will question whatever “facts” they attempt to espouse from that point forward. A fact is either provable or disprovable. An opinion is a belief about the significance of a fact. Confusing the two is extraordinarily dangerous.
I have opinions. I will happily share them with you if asked. I will also continue to explain that they are my opinions first, most likely based on some objective fact. Some of these opinions I treat in my personal life as if they are fact, but I recognize they’re debatable and will readily explain and defend them as such when necessary.
And if/when my opinions start to shift to be contrary to provable facts, while I won’t ask you to quietly respect them, I will ask you to respectfully challenge them.