Statistics are Like Bikinis

“Do you realize that the United States spends forty percent of their GDP on healthcare?!” I said indignantly to some friends a while ago.  Our friend Jon, a professor of mathematics, looked at me in surprise “Forty percent?” he said “That seems really high”. “I know!” I said, even more indignantly! “Canada spends only ten percent!”

I have heard it said that fifty percent of statistics are made up on the spot. Well – there you have it; I am guilty as charged. While the United States does spend significantly more than Canada on healthcare, it is more like eighteen percent — not the forty that I passionately and indignantly claimed. In a moment of passion I forgot the real figure and made it up on the spot. I was the only one in the room that had significant knowledge of the healthcare system in this country and so I was only vaguely questioned. Had my friend not been a math professor I would not have been questioned at all.

What is it with the western world and statistics? We LOVE them! We love to prove our points through those elusive numbers. Why? Is it because you can argue with a story, but you can’t argue as well with numbers?

“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is interesting and what they conceal is necessary”

I heard this quote several years ago and have found many occasions since that time to use it. I love it. In my working hours I live in a world of empirical data, numbers, and evidence-based programs. It’s a world where the quantitative, or numbers, trumps the qualitative, or stories. It’s a world where grant funding is fought for and millions of dollars are either awarded, or not awarded, based on data. It’s also a world where it’s possible to manipulate data and just show what you want to show – thus the bikini analogy.

In fact, as I said above, the west as a whole loves numbers. Think about it for a minute. You can hardly listen to a news program without having those ominous numbers thrown at you. And what percentage of statistics are wrong because they are bought into the way preteens with limited body parts buy into bikinis? What percentage are wrong because of bias? Because of the way words are used to state the statistic? Because they are made up on the spot?

I grow tired of the numbers. I grow tired of the statistics – and yet I know that through them, through these numbers, we receive money to do some important work in communities that have needs and problems. We also receive money to do work in communities that are not needy – because statistics are like bikinis. We can twist them this way and that, covering up those essentials, moving the little top here and twisting the panties there until we have the perfect set up. The set up that will guarantee maximum attention and be quite interesting, perhaps even eye-popping, to look at. But all that is concealed? What is concealed is necessary and so other communities, made up of needier people, lose.

And all the while, I, who love the narrative, who love the stories of people; stories  that show need and ingenuity, desperation and creativity, have to sit back and work out details of a program that will support the numbers.

It can be exhausting. Public health exists to reach the most people possible with the least amount of money. But the compelling narrative behind the statistic is lost in the process. For every statistic we read there is a real story, a real person, a real situation, a real heartache or crisis, a real disease, pregnancy, or cancer, In our effort to analyze and quantify we often fall short of reaching the story.

I don’t have an answer to this. I know numbers do matter and I know that when you have only the story, you have a bikini as well, so this quote helps me to dig a little deeper. To be willing to share and fight for the single story in the midst of the overwhelming data that supports the numbers. Fight for the story that is right in front of me, significant but somehow concealed.

What do you think? Do you get caught up in statistics or hate them? Would love to hear from you in the comment section.

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10 thoughts on “Statistics are Like Bikinis

  1. I figure that the trouble with paying any attention to statistics is that even with good and complete data someone can still cut the data in a way that will validate whatever argument they’re trying to promote.

    to quote Zach Weiner:

    Atomic wars before Women’s suffrage = 0
    Atomic wars after Women’s suffrage = 1

    A reporter would then use that data, which is technically true, to imply that women’s suffrage significantly increased the probability of world war three. I’m sure you could imagine the kind of headline they’d use too…

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    1. Thanks for dropping by and I totally agree with you. I so wish I had heard the quote you cited before I wrote the post and am glad you put it on your comment! Excellent! After all any thinking person knows that Women’s Suffrage increased atomic wars….I look forward to checking out your blog!

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  2. I love the story — qualitative data; yet, at times the story needs to be accompanied by numbers — quantitative data. Thus mixed-method research might be able to show what otherwise remains hidden.

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    1. Exactly how I feel. It’s the combination that works best. I’m thinking you’ve probably had to do a significant amount of research in the years of your PhD work so you know what this is like!

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  3. Heaven forbid, that we should avert our eyes from what the “bikini” reveals—-
    Your article perhaps highlights why I’ve always hated bikinis and statistics….Of course I’ve never put them together until now! I wouldn’t be caught dead using the one and I’ve often been caught for misusing the other!

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    1. What a great comment! I feel exactly the same but your last sentence is the best. I, too, would never be caught in the one and you already seen my problem with the other. Interesting that some of what sparked this post was something I read that negated the divorce rate being 50%. The article talked about how that figure arose because one year there were around 244,000 marriages in the US and 122,000 divorces so someone made it up based on that, which of course is bad research and doesn’t account for all kinds of variables.

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