Written By Sherwood Kohn
Numbers have an air of certitude about them.
People believe numbers.
If I told you that most people brush their teeth 125 strokes every morning, it is likely that you will believe I had read a scientific study that determined that number, or that I actually counted my brush strokes as I stood over the bathroom sink in the morning. Not that the number means anything, especially since I made it up.
Of course, you probably would not think that I actually count the number of brush strokes, only that I was compulsive enough to do it.
My point is that numbers cannot only be used to bolster an argument, but that they can be deceptive as well.
20th century journalist and author Otto Friedrich (The Saturday Evening Post and Time magazine, as well as 14 books) famously wrote an essay for Harper’s magazine entitled, “There are 00 Trees in Russia.” As if someone had actually counted them. His point, of course, was that a publication could say “00” and fill in the numbers later – as if such a statistic was worth publishing.
Politicians regularly cite numbers to support their arguments. Whether or not the figures are valid means little. The point is that they sound like facts.
And what if I said that 85 percent of men first put their right leg into their pants when getting dressed? Would you believe it? It sounds reasonable enough, but again, I pulled the number out of thin air.
But what would I do with a number like that? Maybe, if I were selling trousers, I could use it to claim that my product had reinforced stitching in the right pants leg and was of superior quality. Why wouldn’t you believe it? After all, the number isn’t crucial to your well-being, but it might move you to buy a specific brand of clothing.
Again, people tend to believe numbers. They look or sound so real, so factual. And they can be used to bolster arguments, no matter where they come from, no matter how they were obtained or how accurate they are.
The point is: Do not accept numbers at face value. Be skeptical. Always ask, “Where did those numbers come from?” or “Are they accurate?” “Who is citing them?” And why? Numbers can be just as dubious as any illogic. It all depends on the motive of the person citing them. Honest men use numbers honestly. Dishonest men use them deviously.
Numbers are tools. In the hands of honest men, they can be effective for good. In the hands of crooks, they are like burglars’ crowbars, opening the safes of unsuspecting minds. Be alert.
Be suspicious. The causes for which numbers are employed are often vitally important. Sources and context are everything.