Useless information, damned lies and odd statistics

01 August 2016, at 1:00am

Ewan McNeil muses on the wealth of statistical information at our fingertips, what value it is, and whether we tend to think more highly of ourselves than the evidence warrants.

DID YOU KNOW THAT THE life expectancy in Bolivia is 65.8 years? Or that at least 10 people are crushed annually by vending machines toppling over? And 44% of us reuse tinfoil. 

Welcome, if that’s the correct word, to the wonderful world of statistics, where almost anything can be reduced to a point on a graph, a slice of a pie chart or a figure in a spreadsheet ... so much so that we know with a good degree of certainty that 90% of us depend on alarm clocks to wake up, 58.4% of all employees have called into work sick when they weren’t, 49% of people believe in ESP and 57% have had déjà vu. And so on–and on. 

In a world that is preoccupied with numbers, sometimes it can seem as if we are overwhelmed with statistics, many of which we don’t actually require.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that some statistics aren’t important – science would grind to a halt if we had no way of proving an idea or hypothesis in a rational manner. Similarly, I quite accept that organisations such as national and local governments need to know certain trends, averages and figures to make informed decisions and go about the business of keeping the country running in at least some semblance of order.

But I’m talking about stats that seem to have no real function, and many of the figures quoted above may t into this category – although useless facts such as these have a certain mild attraction for many people and when I started the research for this article I quickly found myself hooked.

Food-related figures, for some reason, seem especially appealing; 9% of us skip breakfast daily but 22% skip lunch. When nobody else is around, almost half of us will drink orange juice straight from the carton. One third of all ice cream sold is vanilla flavour, and the same percentage of all potatoes grown end up as chips – perhaps not surprising when you learn that 22% of restaurant meals include French fries. Americans eat a total of 18 acres of pizza every day, and 93% of us put ketchup on our burgers.

I confess to finding these numbers both credible and intriguing, if not exactly useful. But other statistics are harder to believe – for example, in a typical square acre of countryside there are approximately 50,000 spiders. The odds of being killed by debris falling from space are one in five billion, but the chances of being killed by poisoning are one in 86,000. The average iceberg weighs 20 million tons. 

You can spend hours wondering how on earth these gures are actually determined. And why.

Does all this suggest that some people have too little to do and therefore spend their time collating useless information to make pointless statistics, and do such individuals need help? In fact, is there any link between futile statistics and the fact that 14% of the UK population have attended a self- help meeting? Is it possible that at least some of them are members of Statisticians Anonymous? (Actually, I doubt this organisation really exists: I just made it up! But if it did, we can hazard a guess that they would probably have the most boring after-dinner speakers ever.)

But statistics can also be frustrating at times. We might feel, for example, that a quoted figure is simply not accurate; do you believe that only 13% of parents admit to occasionally doing their offspring’s homework? I suspect it’s far higher (and you may recognise the voice of experience here). And other percentages can leave you wanting more information; 20% of men propose on their knees but 6% propose over the phone. But how many pop the question using the phone but kneeling whilst doing so? And what if statistics confound each other? Men apparently do 29% of the laundry each week, but only 7% of women trust their husbands to do it correctly. And some stats may leave us baffled (e.g. if staying with a friend, 39% of us peek in our host’s bathroom cabinet).

Now I do see the relevance of some stats, in that they can point out risks which await the unwary; one study reports that a driver’s risk of collision is 23 times greater when they are texting, but it surely doesn’t require a mathematician to work out that you should really pay full attention to driving when you’re behind the wheel. On average, 100 people choke to death on ballpoint pens every year; does this mean that we should stop using all ballpoint pens? And each year approximately the same number of Russians are killed when sharp icicles fall from snowy rooftops and land on hapless victims walking below.

In fact, given the number of stats that point to unexpected or unusual ways to die, do we take the attitude that it’s safer to simply stay in bed? If so, you may wish to know that the average person has over 1,460 dreams a year, but beware; falling out of bed accounts for 1.8 million A&E visits and over 400,000 hospital admissions each year in the US alone. And whilst we’re on the subject, 21% of us don’t always make our bed on a daily basis and 5% of us never do!

Closer to home is the topic of veterinary-related statistics. Business gurus will churn out some of the numbers (e.g. you need 10,000 people in a town to support one vet; the average cost of sales is 28% of a practice’s turnover) whilst professional bodies such as the RCVS will produce others (e.g. 7% of all vets will have a complaint made against them in their first 12 months in practice; the average vet is 45.5 years of age).

But I’m drawn to the more useless or esoteric side of things again, and vets may nd some of the following gures rather worrying, fairly reassuring, or just plain useless. For example, and back to death again for the next two statistics, did you know that you are more likely to be killed by a champagne cork than a poisonous spider? And how do we react to the news that more people are killed annually by donkeys than die in air crashes – does this reassure you that you were right not to become an equine vet?

From dying to lying

Perhaps most worryingly, and returning to the headline on this piece, statistics say that 91% of us lie regularly. Of course, this is the classic catch-22 situation; if you ask someone if they tell bs, and they say no, are they actually lying? But if nine out of every 10 people tell lies, we must assume that at least some of them are statisticians – and so should we call into question all the above facts? Are over 90% of the gures I’ve just given you complete rubbish?

Quite possibly yes. But allow yourself to ponder one statistic that apparently applies to the general population, and consider if we can extrapolate it into our own small world: 35% of people give to charity at least once a month – which is laudable. But does this figure accurately represent the number of vets that give to charity?

I’m not talking about donations to good causes here. I’m referring to the large number of us who seem happy to give money away several times a day, every day, when it comes to pricing up cases. There are various reasons for this – maybe we undervalue our own abilities, basing the fee on the animal’s worth (“I’ll not charge a full consultation for the rabbit, they only paid £5 for it at the pet shop”), or because we feel guilty charging for a sick animal’s treatment (“We’ll not ask full price for these x-rays since the cat’s probably going to die soon”), or because we reckon the client can’t afford it (“He looks like he doesn’t have much money to spare”).

Then there’s deliberately not charging for a service (“Dematting the cat whilst he was under anaesthetic for dental work didn’t take the nurse many minutes, so we’ll not charge for that”) or not adding on a fee because a test was negative (“There were no abnormalities on the urine test and a dipstick costs almost nothing, so we’ll not include that on the bill”). And there’s the huge amounts that some vets give away each day by simply forgetting to include items on an invoice (farm vets are the worst at this; how many bottles of antibiotic go un-charged each year?) and it’s all because the profession is truly awful when it comes to basic common sense in business.

Not only are we really good – or really bad – at these unofficial charity donations, we don’t even tell our clients that they’re getting a bargain. If we’re going to offer unasked-for discounts, then we should at least tell owners what we’re doing for them.

I was going to say that employed vets are the worst offenders, as it’s not their business to worry about pro t and loss, but on reflection perhaps this isn’t true – bosses and partners can be just as bad, and if you recognise your own practice in this description you may well be asking how you put an end to this generous discounting.

Sadly, I’m not sure that you can, as the trait is so ingrained, although I offer one or two possibilities. If your partner or assistant wants to give away money, suggest that he or she has an annual limit of, say, £1,000, which can be set against invoices as they wish; once this amount is exceeded, the balance is deducted from their salary or pro ts. Or if a person wants to give someone a 20% discount on their bill, there’s no problem – simply propose that the practice will stand half of the amount, on condition that the individual stands the other half.

And if you feel certain that you’re not guilty of this practice, think again. I can almost hear you say, “Yes, I know my partner/assistant/boss discounts all the time, but hey, thank goodness I don’t”. Let me just give you another couple of statistics: 85% of people believe they are above average at driving, and 94% of university professors apparently consider themselves to be academically superior to their peers.

These figures surely suggest that we tend to think more highly of ourselves than thorough analysis of the evidence warrants, although in fact the scrutiny doesn’t even need to be rigorous; presumably only 50% of us can be better than average at driving? In other words, most of us are pretty good at self-deception, so do check how accurate your pricing is before asking your assistant/partner if he/she has charged out everything properly today. In any case, the reply will surely be “Yes, of course.” You can take this answer at face value. Or you can remind yourself that 91% of us regularly lie.