Editor’s Viewpoint: The Numbers-Driven Life
I used to travel occasionally with a salesman who addressed his customers with an impressive array of statistics about our magazine and the marketplace it served. He also had a bad habit of looking at a customer’s shoulder rather than his face when he was talking with him. Knowing that the salesman operated with mathematical precision, I told him that to compensate for his quirk, I would stare above the customer’s head, so on average, we would be looking him in the eye. Ultimately, the salesman wasn’t as successful as he might have been because he suffered from a problem shared by many of us in government and business: relying too heavily on numbers — in particular, those in spreadsheets, research and polls.
We’ve become conditioned to use numbers to paint a picture of reality. Teachers trained many of us to use research and statistics, both of which have been made easily accessible by computers. Much of our world view is created by the news, which often uses polls and other types of research as sources. But, the most compelling reason we use numbers to explain life is because it is much easier than digging below them to gain context. The problem with a more thorough examination, of course, is the additional time, effort and patience that it requires — three human qualities that have become a casualty in a world too busy to think.
Our level of comfort with numbers has led to an over reliance on them. In some cases they are used to simplify life, which has turned statistics into weapons used by everyone, from politicians to bloggers, to justify their opinions or simply rally their troops. In fact, a news item we published on our sister Web site, govpro.com, that reported the results of a study ranking the political leanings of American cities currently generates large numbers of mostly visceral online responses. And, what did the survey reveal to stimulate those comments? Detroit is the most liberal city, and Provo, Utah, is the most conservative. The South has the largest cluster of conservatives, and Texas has three of the top five most conservative cities.
Here’s the punch line: the story was published on govpro.com in August 2005 and remains one of the most popular.
Of course, some numbers are critical and require little explanation — your blood pressure, for example. However, how long you live is a number, but what is more important is how well you live long.
In the end, numbers can dissect life, but understanding it requires inspection. Numbers aren’t creative or logical. We are. Numbers don’t reason, we do — at least when we choose to.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.