Enlightened Conflict

how numbers have lost their mojo

February 1st, 2017

numbers 2 pencil truth facts learning

 

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“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books.

You will be reading meanings.”

 

E. B. Du Bois

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“Perfect numbers like perfect men are very rare.”

 

—–

Rene Descartes

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“There are no facts anymore, everything is twisted by corporate greed.

Scientific research, social policy, economic forecasts … nothing can be held as factual.

 

————-

Some everyday schmuck commenting on an online article

 

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So.

 

2 plus 2 numbers truth factsOnce we got past 2 plus 2 equals 4 in school almost every single one of us started learning that all numbers contain shadows.

 

And that within that shadow resided their true meaning.

Let’s call that shadow ‘the value of the number.’

 

Yeah.

 

2 may be 2 but once you get into the real world your 2’s can become a ‘solid 2’ or maybe a “just 2” or even a “2 but really 2.2”.

 

Face it.

If you have been in the business world for any length of time you cannot remember the last time that 2 was simply 2 when presented in some meeting.

 

And then let me give you the more complex example of ‘the shadow.’

 

An expert can offer a number, a statistic or data driven conclusion, and it can be dismissed as ignoring the emotional feelings and angst of the people it i am too sad to walkrepresents <let’s call that the emotional investment & value within the number itself>. And within that dismissal the cold harsh truth becomes a non truth.

 

<sad.>

 

And here is where it gets even trickier … I can flip the discussion around and discuss emotional investment <pick your poison on this> and then find a number to validate it <flawed “if this then that” logic>. And within that reversed logic I am just as likely to create a ‘truth’ from some numbers that is in reality a ‘non truth’ as I am to create a what is in actuality a real gosh darn truth.

 

I decided to write about this because numbers are in a battle for their lives – in business and in society. And it would behoove us to insure that numbers actually won this battle.

 

Without numbers we will enter a world where someone can simply say “I believe what I believe” and “feelings mater more than facts” and that somehow becomes as valid as something that is actually provable.

 

Regardless.

 

Going back to the harsh truth of numbers in real Life … whether we like it or not numbers are rarely just numbers.

If you have any desire to use numbers and actually win any debate using the numbers you <a> have to believe they all have a shadow and <b> believe if you do not look into the shadows you will fail to understand what truth is.

 

I know.

I know.

Some of you may be scratching your head going “gosh, I don’t know if I buy this.”

 

Just think about the last business meeting you were in where someone number pops up on the screen at the front of the conference room and one of two things happen:questions make cry

 

<1> the presenter says “let me tell you what this numbers means”, or,

 

<2> someone sitting at the table says “tell us what that number represents <means>.

 

And, yes, up on the screen … most likely bolded and in some nifty color … is a nice simple clear number. Let’s say 122. Okay. Don’t like that? How about 7? It doesn’t matter. It is a solid number we all know and recognize.

 

And, yet, there are always questions.

 

It sucks but numbers aren’t just numbers and maybe worse … numbers do not speak simply nor do they tell their own story.

 

And because they cannot tell their own story it becomes up to <gulp> humans to tell their story for them.

 

Oh.

 

How I imagine how numbers cringe at how their stories are told.

 

Statisticians, who most likely know more about numbers stories than anyone else, are not natural story tellers and therefore they strip the narrative of anything likeable and bare the numbers for what they are and nothing more.

 

And, as I noted in the opening, this strips numbers of emotion <and emotion is what people are most likely to connect with>. this leaves their audiences sitting there … well … kind of crafting their own story in their own head.

 

Now.

Seeing these relatively important numbers, stripped of emotion, you will then see a slew of non statisticians scramble towards the microphone to cry out what is missing in the numbers presented.

fate

In an absurd twist of fate numbers far too often have stolen from them the one true strength that they have to offer us — the ability to discuss things as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated.

 

In theory, numbers should help settle arguments not create them.

 

In theory, numbers should help to offer clarity not create confusion <or doubt>.

 

In theory, numbers should provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter what your opinion – can agree on.

 

In practicality, in today’s world, numbers are in the midst of a trust battle.

That, my friends, is bizarre.

 

A number is a number.

 

2 + 2 = 4.

 

Numbers should be the starkest truth society can have – shadow or not.

sad numbers hear listen business

And, yet, study after study suggests that people believe that whomever is offering the number of the day is using it to actually hide something.

 

In fact, rather than eliminating doubt, numbers appear to actually be encouraging controversy and doubt

This is crazy if not truly bizarre.

 

Think about it for a second.

 

Numbers have become untrustworthy.

Numbers have become the voice of the arrogant and elite.

Numbers have become the trusted tool of the conspiracy theorist.

 

Has the world turned upside down?

 

Regardless.

 

Numbers are supposed to offer certainty not uncertainty. They are not meant to be defined by their shadow but rather by their body.

 

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The word statistics is defined as a discipline that includes procedures and techniques used to collect, process and analyze the numerical data to make inferences and to reach appropriate decision in situation of uncertainty (uncertainty refers to incompleteness, it does not imply ignorance). In this sense word statistic is used in the singular sense. It denotes the science of basing decision on numerical data.

—————

 

 

And maybe that is where numbers need some help. “Statistics” and statisticians imply such a non emotional, impersonal, aspect that the everyday schmuck comes out of the woodwork attacking the fact that people are not numbers numbers 6 degrees<and, yet, numbers can represent people>. For all that numbers offer us in terms of certainty it is a basic Life truth that no one person ever wants to view themselves as a number.

 

That is a fundamental challenge number users & presenters need to face.

Because while it is true, an unequivocal fact,  that the amount of data <numbers> we leave in our trail in everyday Life will grow even greater and that people are represented day in and day out by numbers that sheer overwhelming amount of information will continue to encourage people to suggest that the numbers do not represent … uhm …. “1” … as in me the individual.

 

And number users and presenters better get their heads wrapped around this because it isn’t about trust or certainty … numbers are factual indicators of health, prosperity, equality, opinion and quality of life <pretty much anything important to society & people>.

 

I say that because when non-numbers people start stretching numerical evidence too far, interpret data too loosely or misuse them simply to serve their cause it becomes a hazard to the betterment of everyone <including you & I>.

 

Numbers truly run into problems when they fall into the wretched hollow between representing true evidence and representing speculative forecasting/thinking.

 

Uhm.

Why does that matter?

 

One represents … well … analysis of what is … while the other represents patterns for what could be.

To the everyday schmuck like me I don’t really discern the difference when presented numbers … they are just some fucking numbers to me.

 

All equal.

That is bad.

 

And then … maybe worse?

When we end up in this wretched hollow of only dealing in numbers’ shadows and not the numbers themselves we trigger not only the wholehearted rejection of expertise … but a pervasive attitude that we should reject numbers in totality <and go simply with gut, feelings and opinions>.

 

free-bad-advice-business-blog-contrarianThat is bad.

 

That is wrong.

 

That is dangerous.

 

This battle is occurring between facts <cold hard numbers … the body itself> and feelings <the emotional investment, shadow, of the numbers>.

 

Look.

 

This is a very very important battle going on.

 

While numbers truly have no authority over a decision or conclusion … they actually are tools which we use to make decisions.

We misunderstand numbers sometimes because they do not make the decision for us <although we would love them to>.

Think about this.

 

In decision making numbers are only relevant in the feedback loop of the current activity. If you wish to continue on the path, then the feedback pretty much controls the decision <hence you associate statistics with authority>.

 

If you wish to change the path completely, then the statistics on what happens in the old system have no authority and little relevance.

 

This means that numbers, in general, do not indicate the future only share insights with regard to existing and past behavior.

 

Think about that for one second.

 

You should.

 

Because there are a shitload of politicians, non-numbers people and opinion leaders using numbers to tell us what the future will look like.

truth facts numbers understand question

And maybe that is where I will need. Because there are a shitload of extremely qualified think tanks and experts who use numbers to project, speculate and offer some futuristic thoughts … and yet their ‘thoughts’ are valued sometimes less than the thoughts of non-numbers people <who actually misuse the numbers>.

 

Smart people using smart numbers need to figure that out. Because if they do not … we are screwed. I say that because numbers drive a shitload of decisions.

As I wrote once … the business truth is that theory sells … but numbers runs the reality of business. This is also true for policies & Life.

 

My only suggestion to numbers experts is that they need to stop looking at numbers as numbers and recognize that their future, and the truth, is most likely found in presenting the stories found within the numbers’ shadows well.

 

 

 

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