Tuesday, April 13, 2010

v35.5: Statistically Speaking

Good morning folks,

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In 1978 there was an airplane flying from London to Boston.  Approximately half way across the Atlantic the plane suddenly disappeared; no wreckage was ever found, not even small debris.  To this day nobody knows what exactly happened and despite numerous efforts to find the wreckage, not a single piece has ever been found.

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You've heard it a thousand times, statistically airplanes are the safest form of travel.  Safer than walking, safer than driving and safer than taking the train.  Yet if a plane goes down you can almost guarantee all passengers aboard will be killed.  If you get into a car crash there is a chance you'll survive; especially with all the safety features available today.  So how does someone come up with a statistic on air travel being the safest form of travel?

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Personally I think statistics are mostly made up numbers.  A friend of mine once told me "14.7% of all stats are completely made up".  There's a hidden joke in there somewhere.  When you hear things like "1 out of every 5 North Americans own a gun" you start to think.  I don't own a gun, my neighbor doesn't own a gun, the guy next to him doesn't own a gun; that's 6 people right there.  Of course it wouldn't take many people in my neighborhood who do own guns to make that statistic true but how the hell can such a statement be made for all the people in North America?

Statistics: a branch of applied mathematics concerned with the collection and interpretation of quantitative data and the use of probability theory to estimate population parameters.

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Can you think of other statistics you've heard and questioned?  Take a look at the Stats Canada website some time (I'm sure there's a U.S. version for my friends to the South) and just look at all the data they've collected.  They have stats for virtually everything on there.  Have you ever wondered the percentage of people who cars or who own houses?  How about how many people have been diagnosed with some disease or sickness?  There are all sorts of things on there that people have taken the time to collect data and analyze.  Look at my website, I keep statistics on my Tim Horton's roll-up-the-rim contest winnings and losses.  You see stats everywhere you look and most of us eat them up as truth without ever doing a little bit of digging to find the truth.

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Take my opening paragraph for example, that is a completely made up story that holds no facts.  You probably believed it because you've heard similar stories of planes vanishing.  I wrote that story to prove a simple point, people believe almost everything they read without ever taking the time to do a tiny bit of research to validate it.  I've said it many times here, "Don't take my word for it, look it up for yourself".  I've written about a lot of things over the past 5 years and I'm not always 100% accurate in my statements.  Even with all the research I do there are times when I'll pick up inaccurate data and write about it.  Sometimes I'm corrected and I'm thankful for that as it shows me there are still "thinking" people out there.  While I do try and be as accurate as possible, I am only human and I do make mistakes.

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You know what?  Statistically speaking, 18% of all publications are inaccurate and false?  Yes, I just made that up :)  I'm sure it holds a certain bit of truth and the actual percentage is probably a lot higher, sadly.  Just remember folks, there are times when you should really do a little bit of research on the side to validate things you read.  People like prey on the ignorance of people; sales people are a great example of this.  They fire off a few stats (which could be completely false) and sell you on something you either don't need or could find a better one.  Be informed and know your data and don't be afraid to question stats.

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Cheers,

Al