Statistics Are Not Facts

Statistics are not facts, in the same way that recipes are not food. If you cook like I do, the food I prepare barely resembles the dish designed by the recipe writer. I’m OK with that. The recipe pointed me in the right direction. It inspired me. It guided my curiosity.

Statistics are meant to do the same thing. They are metaphors, designed to organize a bunch of facts into a coherent story. They lead us to facts, but they are not facts themselves. They tell us where to look for the relevant facts and how those might be connected to one another.

You may quibble with my hard line against allowing statistics as facts. Mark Twain popularized the denigration of statistics in 1906, but he never claimed originality. Its first citing was in an 1891 letter to the editor in the British newspaper National Observer, and even it claimed no originality:

“Sir, —It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a ‘fib,’ the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics. It is on statistics and on the absence of statistics that the advocate of national pensions relies…”

The old saw’s first printed occurrence was in reference to public retirements. Don’t forget that detail.

We accept a statistic as the end of a story, when it’s rightful place is at the beginning. When we believe a statistic sums up everything, we don’t pay attention to the multitude of facts that make that single statistical summary relevant. Statistics can help us understand complexity, as a recipe guides our cooking technique, but they are not an end in themselves. Statistics are necessary but not sufficient.

Imagine if USA Today decided it could no longer devote nearly a full page to weather across the nation. Efficiency-minded editors could replace all the local temperatures with a single number that averages all those local temperatures.

Is it useful to know the average temperature in the United States was 52.4 degrees yesterday? No, it’s not — even if it’s accurate. We need more than that — and not more precision. Knowing yesterday’s temperature was 52.385 degrees is still not useful, because it’s not relevant. What matters to us is the closest fact that contributed to that summary statistic. For now, USA Today’s weather map is safe.

In the same way, have you ever met anyone who is 4.7 percent unemployed? Of course not. Because a statistic is not to be confused with the people and lives it’s designed to summarize.

The limited utility of statistics was brought home to Oregon recently when we were reminded that the Public Employee Retirement System comprises at least 925 separate, locally administered retirement plans. Each has addressed the funding shortfall in its own way. The total PERS system’s unfunded liability of $21 billion does not fall equally onto every jurisdiction.

No single solution will solve the PERS unfunded liability crisis. It will require 925 solutions, decided and enacted locally. Don’t underestimate the importance of that shift. Divide anything into a thousand smaller parts and it looks different, especially if you don’t have to worry about putting the parts back together.

One thousandth of a crisis is nothing more than a problem. We still ask, “What will we do?” — but without the plaintive wail of helplessness associated with PERS funding discussions.

It should also shift the conversation among state lawmakers, away from any sort of silver bullet. Where will we find 925 silver bullets? What we need most from our central leaders is flexibility and information exchange. If Salem can remove any shackles that the courts will allow, local control is reaffirmed. Then we can learn from one another what’s working best.

For example, the state consolidated school funding at the state level 25 years ago, to address certain inequities. Looking back on those decisions, are there pieces of control that can and should be returned to local jurisdictions?

When the problem of retirement funds is summarized at the state level, it matters less to each of us. Statistics are bloodless. We don’t know anyone who is 4.7 percent unemployed.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.