Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Stat-bombing the Lead: Why Stats Are Losing their Meaning

 Untrue statistics chart

68% of all blog posts and newsletter articles begin with statistics. And 39% of all statistics are made up!

Stat-bombing the lead—like I just did—is just one example of the gratuitous use of statistics in today’s popular discourse. More and more often people drape their writing and presentations with stats, like they’re adorning themselves with flashy jewelry or designer accessories. Their primary goal is not to convey accurate information, but to attract attention and make an impression. The result is that we become accustomed to sloppy stats, and we lose respect for even those that are used with care.

Leading off an article with stats of dubious accuracy—stat-bombing the lead—is nothing new or unusual. Even the great Avinash Kaushik is not immune to this technique. Here he begins a post with numbers so big that you can’t even get your head around them:

Facebook, at last count, has 1.5 billion monthly active users. YouTube has 1.2 billion users (watching 6 billion hours of videos!). Instagram has an estimated 400 million users.

Now, Mr. Kaushik is a brilliant and informative writer (in fact, I recommend you read the rest of that post, and a few of his others, too). His stat-bomb technique certainly grabbed our attention. But that’s about all it did. Because, really, what does “1.5 billion active users” or “6 billion hours of videos” mean in this context besides “Hey look at this!?”

It used to be when an article started off with, “XX percent of so-and-so are doing such-and-such,” it was a legitimate effort to communicate an interesting fact. But today, stat-bombing the lead has become the equivalent of opening a speech with a joke. The primary importance of these numbers is not to communicate some vital truth, but as a mental hook to snag the reader’s attention. The subtext is: Who cares if they’re accurate? That’s not their purpose.

There is just something about statistics that attracts our attention. Huff and Geis pointed this out 60 years ago in How to Lie With Statistics: “The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify.” They went on to describe “…the daze that follows the collision of statistics with the human mind.”

And that’s just what happens after we read a stat-bombed lead: In a daze of excitement to read further we ignore the actual accuracy of the figures. And so we accept another sloppy stat, and thus Homer Simpson’s famous quote is reinforced: “Facts? You can prove anything with facts!”
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Thanks to Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig for the image.

Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and was its editor until July 2017. He also edits The Measurement Advisor newsletter. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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1 Comment

  1. David Geddes

    As the classic adage goes: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”

    Unfortunately, there is a long tradition in journalism, and in public relations, of using numbers in cavalier ways. We need to insist on higher standards.

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