A while ago, Fast Company published an article relating to a new study from Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, claiming that “Facebook will lose 80% of users by 2017”. This article was duly shared around the world across multiple channels, reaching millions of people. If you looked very carefully though, you’d find that the statistics are exclusively based on how many times the word ‘Facebook’ appears in Google analytics. Critically, these analytics do not include mobile usage, which accounts for the majority of Internet traffic, including a rise to over 100 million mobile Facebook users at the time. Such insight was quietly set aside to make way for the attention-grabbing headline.
We see many market reports and professional comment that, one would assume, is valid and considered. However, I see a continuous trend where hidden information resides behind colourful charts that are widely quoted and used as a basis for investment of time, energy or money. In the Black Swan, Taleb calls this ‘silent evidence’.
Are we seeing the full picture? It may be circumstance that determines the answer. After all, sub-editors often remove the subtleties that surround what is written. Obviously, our consumption of information has to be made to fit our increasingly ‘bite-size’ and ‘instant satisfaction’ personalities, but I fear this may be at the expense of real truth.
In its most basic form, silent evidence is easy to spot. For example, if I were to prove to you that sober drivers cause more accidents than drivers under the influence of alcohol, would you conclude that it is safer to drive whilst under the influence?
That seems to be presented in my argument, however what is missing is that there are a relatively small number of drivers who drive under the influence, but who account for a disproportionately high number of accidents.
This trap is actually very common. As it happens, there are a number of ways in which information can be misleading, including:
In summary, publishers have a responsibility to promote accurate and contextually detailed data to others, and viewers have an opportunity to dig deeper. As information spreads so quickly in this ultra-connected world, the misrepresentation of truth re-frames what ‘truth’ is – especially when those in a position of authority are relaying information that is believed on sight.
To quote an unknown source discussing statistics:
“86% of statistics are made up on the spot and the remaining 24% are mathematically flawed.”
Taken from 28 Thoughts - see 'books' on the menu.