Archive for February, 2009

Statistics are the bread of life

mickeymThe old adage about the drunkard and the lamp post is the truest thing that can be said about statistics. I say this as a regular user of the TGI survey, which is really a hat full of fairy dust when in the hands of a classy magician.
I was once asked to provide evidence that would support two conflicting views about a consumer group, which is possible if you add more weight to, say, an index rather than an actual percentage.
Yes, statistics can be bullshit, as any Daily Mail reader will tell you.
Here are some good ones, which have the twin benefit of being made up and totally plausible:

Did you know:

  • More than 98 percent of convicted criminals are bread eaters!
  • Exactly half of all children who grow up in bread – eating households score in the bottom 50% on standardized IQ tests!
  • In the 19th century, when virtually all bread was baked in the home, the average life expectancy was less than 55 years; infant mortality rates were unacceptably high; many women died in childbirth; and diseases such as typhoid, scarlet fever, smallpox and influenza ravaged entire nations!
  • Statistics show that more than 75 % of violent crimes are committed within 24 hours of eating bread!
  • Bread is made from a substance called “dough.” Researchers have proven that as little as one pound of dough can choke a large animal like a horse. The average person eats more bread than that in one month!
  • Bread is known to be extremely addictive. Subjects deprived of bread and given only water, actually begged for bread after just two days!
  • Bread is a “gateway” food item, which usually leads to such items as butter, jam, peanut butter and even … bacon!
  • Bread has been proven to kill. Scientists have now uncovered alarming evidence that 100% of the people who eat bread will eventually die!
  • Unattended newborn babies can choke on bread!
  • Bread is baked at temperatures as high as 425 degrees Fahrenheit ! Don’t laugh…that kind of heat can kill a full grown adult in less than five minutes.
  • 96% of cancer victims eventually admit that they’ve eaten bread!
  • Sadly, 9 out of 10 bread eaters are unable to distinguish between significant scientific fact and meaningless statistical babbling.

These wonderful numbers are provided by a commenter on this irate blog post.


Hard to believe that evidence is not enough


Over the last few years I have been seduced by scepticism. I don’t want to bore you with the details of how I got here, but what it has left me with is a very strong love for science. I was crap at all things science at school, which is unsurprising considering my boredom with logic and a preference for imagination (I did see both concepts as opposites, wrongly).
At the heart of scepticism is scientific thinking is proving very useful at work. Looking at consumer trends, the clarity of understanding the divide between behaviour that is guided by emotion and instinct, and behaviour that is guided by reason and evidence, often proves a good platform for predicting where some trends might be heading.
For example, the media is doing a fine job of frightening us into thinking we’re all doomed. We have the twin demons of environmental disaster and a financial depression (the media’s view, not mine), two ideas which together encourage a very powerful and irrational mindset.
Several surveys over recent months from the likes of MORI, Mintel and, today, CCB fastMAP, show how our immediate financial needs are eroding the once-sacred environmental ethical urge. On the other hand, there are claims that superstition and religion are on the rise.
These two trends are compatible if keeping up an ethical lifestyle, or consuming products with dubious benefits (like homeopathic medicines), cost us money, whereas going to church or avoiding black cats cost us nothing.
Apart from the everyday mundane things that give me comfort (like teasing the kids, beer and watching 24), I find spiritual inspiration from scientific journalism. There are the brilliant Guardian Science Weekly and SGU podcasts, amongst others. And in my RSS reader are ScienceBlogs and the famous Dr Ben.
So it’s no surprise then that I elected to watch David Attenborough’s ode to Charles Darwin last week. This programme included one of the most inspired descriptions of nature I have ever seen: the computer-generated Tree Of Life. Considering the weight of evidence that has accumulated over the last century to support the theory of evolution, I find it sad that dogmatic stubborness still separates millions of people from appreciating the awesome beauty of natural selection.

(WordPress is playing silly buggers with embeddable video. If it doesn’t appear at this point in the blog post, then watch the clip here.)

Footnote: one of the saddest things of all is happening in children’s education.

Self-important bit

I’m Victor Houghton, a, er... something or other in one of the UK’s largest advertising agencies. My job title has a comma in it, which is embarrassing. I’m the chief finder-things-outer with a splash of trends who is lucky to work with all the major functions of the agency, even though I am most closely associated with strategic planning. Everything in this blog has most probably been stolen from other, infinitely more talented people, although the opinions are most definitely my own and not those of the agency.



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