Be Skeptical of Selective Statistics

We’re all a star in our own life’s story, but merely a background character in others’ lives.

A humorous spin on this perspective is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The two characters merit only passing mention in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but playwright Tom Stoppard took that fragment and in 1967 expanded it to create an entirely different tale.

The same principle plays out with the stories we tell, whether in the media or at the dinner table.

In business, you can use the same data to hail a company’s growth or shine a light on its struggles. A classic example is when a business is said to have experienced a surge or decline in profits compared to a previous period of time.

So, for example, instead of raking in $80 million of profit, Company XYZ profits by “only” $40 million. Meanwhile, Company ABC-azon reduces the amount it loses from a jillion to merely $100 billion. What a success!

Of course, those are extreme examples, but you get the idea.

A few years ago, I recall reading a newspaper story on the murder rate in a major Midwestern city. It focused on persisting trends in which more people were killed during the hot summer months than other times of the year. Contained in the same story—buried, really—was brief mention that the number of homicides so far in that year were significantly lower than the same year-ago period.

The story very easily could have focused on that drop, with the unsurprising correlation of heat and violence relegated to background character status.

Keep Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in mind whenever you come across a story. Those “throw-away” remarks and minor mentions may contain the kernel of the less-known but more interesting tale to tell.

Another case in point: a Chicago television station once broadcast a segment on what they reported to be an upward trend in planned C-sections.

In the report, a source said that physicians and nurses comprise a large proportion of those who opt for planned C-sections (as opposed to the more common emergency C-sections). Instead of examining that intriguing angle—after all, these are the same medical personnel who are often caring for birthing mothers—the story simply moseyed along.

Here’s where the reporter could have asked some questions: What proportion of planned C-sections are done on doctors and nurses? And why is that?

Beyond that oversight, the story also failed to provide basic context, such as the percentage of births that are C-section (it’s about 25 percent) and the percentage of C-sections that are planned.

Those are dreadfully sloppy omissions, really, when you consider the entire thrust of the story was that they were on the rise.

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