Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Will Sampson is the Editorial Director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine. He shares decades of experience in woodworking and business.

One of my favorite quotes is typically attributed to Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In these days of the “big lie,” constant misinformation, false reporting, and conspiracy theories from all ends of the political spectrum, it is somehow appropriate, that Twain himself did not take credit for the quote, instead attributing it to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who might never have said it in the first place.

Whoever did say it hit on a fundamental issue, especially in our complex modern world. Even when you try to reduce truth and falsehood to numbers, you run afoul of the numbers, math skills, and motives of everyone connected to compiling or interpreting the data. How many people understand the difference between average (the sum of numbers divided by how many numbers are in the list) and median (the middle of a sorted list of numbers)? An average can be skewed by extremely low or high numbers. A median doesn’t reflect how high or low the numbers go.

But we can’t escape the numbers. We are in business after all. We need to measure our progress, and those measurements always color what and how we manage our business. Right now, a lot of woodworking industry companies are focused on interest rates (which are high) and home sales (which are low), together adversely affecting cabinetry and wood products or projects targeted at residential construction. Inflation continues to affect costs. Unemployment, job creation, and hiring make for a complex stew of numbers.

I’ve always had a difficult relationship with numbers. I’ve long recognized them as important, and in school I did well in math most of the time, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Early in my journalism career, I recognized the power of numbers to sift through a complex subject to provide context and understanding. When I was working for a small daily newspaper in the 1980s, I got one of the first credit card-sized calculators that I could keep handy in my wallet. My editor at the time laughed at it and said, “Look out now! Sampson’s going to have numbers in every story!”

Still, numbers are meaningless unless they are related appropriately to each other and the context in which they are used. One of my favorite children’s books is Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth,” a story that hinges on a war between two kingdoms, one founded on words, and the other founded on mathematics. They could not communicate with each other.

In covering business for the woodworking industry, we must communicate with both words and numbers. We need to seek the truth and the right numbers that have value to help woodworking businesses succeed. Our annual Almanac issue tries to do that, combining a wealth of statistical data, but put in context of industry forecasts and past performance. We’re trying to replace “lies, damned lies, and statistics” with something that equates to “truth, annoying facts, and numbers in context.” Not so pithy, but ever so much more valuable.

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