elevator rides and misleading statistics

From Darrell Huff's excellent How to Lie with Statistics:

"If you can't prove what you want to prove, demonstrate something else and pretend they are the same thing. In the daze that follows the collision of statistics with the human mind, hardly anyone will notice the difference."

I share the elevator up to the office every morning with a small, tablet-sized screen. It's primary function is to give me and other elevator riders something to look at while we awkwardly ignore each other.

This little screen (or at least whoever paid to put that screen there) knows who rides up and down these elevators. Marketers, media buyers, investors, accountants. It displays bite-sized factoids targeted to these people. Little bits of out-of-context data, news, and advice, sponsored by Forbes.

In other words, this little screen is a purveyor of bullshit.

"A recent study shows that 92% of adult Americans have their phones near them at all times." 

"To get the most out of your marketing, you should maintain a blog. 35% of customers say they first hear of a brand through a blog."

To the uninitiated, numbers carry a strangely high level of authority. They remove the pressure for you to be correct. If you're in the business of misleading people, using convincing-sounding numbers is the easiest way to do that. 

Why? Because you can frame any statistic in a way to tell the story you want to tell. You can design any study or survey to get the results you want. Numbers don't exist in a vacuum; they are compiled and observed through the lens of human bias.

So maybe numbers play a different role than we all have imagined. Numbers aren't designed to be fully predictive or descriptive of the world around us. Instead, they function in the negative sense-- to show us how they shouldn't be used.