My least favorite “statistic”

If you read newspapers or magazines frequently, you’ve probably happened upon the genre of the trend piece.

A trend piece documents something allegedly on the rise, and often tries to analyze what that says about us as a society. You may start with an anecdote, note that the person “is not alone” and then offer some other anecdotes or statistics to convince the audience that your trend is, in fact, a trend.

There are lots of statistics out there — true or not — so this shouldn’t be too hard. But way, way, too frequently, the writer resorts to a statistic like this:

“Google TREND and you get X million pages.”

Whatever X is, X million sounds like a very large number — and so this statistic serves to show your audience that the trend is overwhelming.

But these Google results numbers are pretty much meaningless. Is this number larger than it was 5 years ago, for reasons beyond the proportional growth of the internet? What other words have even greater numbers of results? That last question in particular matters, because there’s never any comparison. Even if there was, I’m not sure that would show what the writer is trying to show, because some words are just more present on the internet than they are consequential to life. I just Googled the word “blog” and got close to 7 billion pages. Then I Googled the word “water” and got 1.82 billion pages. Does that mean that blogs are roughly 3.5 times more significant than water? Probably not. Or consider this: the word “blogs” gives me 1.76 billion results, far fewer than “blog” — so are “blogs” plural less significant than “blog” singular?

I wish people would dig a little deeper and find a better statistic to show the importance of a topic.

In other, less crotchety news: Following a tip from Cali Yost, author of Tweak It, I looked through my oldest kid’s 2013-2014 school calendar and put all the dates of half days and vacation days on my calendar. Not only does this mean no one’s caught off guard, it also means I can start thinking about the next year’s vacations and when they might work.

We went to Costco this weekend and totally overdosed on produce. I’m trying to use as much as I can before it goes bad, but I’ve also realized that over-buying produce is not a bad thing — for me at least. It pretty much forces all of us to eat an extra serving than what we otherwise would. I just won’t be sharing Food Waste Friday pictures…

8 thoughts on “My least favorite “statistic”

    1. @N&M – I believe it. Probably like Snakes on a Plane. It sounds more fun as a concept than the execution may be.

  1. “You may start with an anecdote, note that the person “is not alone” “…ha! Yes, I am sick of these type stories in general…conjuring “news” out of thin air. Not sure I see the point—are we supposed to feel connected if we can relate, and like we’re missing out on the trend if we can’t?

    1. @Ana- it’s just pretty classic how we learn to write such stories. An anecdotal “lede” (old newspaper jargon for a lead paragraph) supposedly draws the reader in because we care about the people in the anecdote. The issue is that in a world of 7 billion people you can find an anecdote of ANYTHING. So if your anecdote is then backed up by a meaningless statistic, well, not much reliable info has actually been conveyed.

  2. Ooh, I have a tip to share! Depending on what you bought, you could probably freeze a lot of your fruit to throw into a smoothie in the future. That’s one of my favorite easy ways to keep from throwing fruit away.

    I agree with what you’re saying, though…when I started working on my food waste, we all started eating more and more produce to keep it from going bad.

    1. @The Frugal Girl – It’s a fine line for me. I don’t want to underbuy, because “it will just go bad.” Some probably will go bad, but I’ll get a lot more fruit and veggies into all of us this way. I will freeze the fruit. Not sure what to do about bad broccoli and slimy kale though. I’ve been finding lots of ways to get in extra servings. Had a breakfast of peaches and blueberries with marscapone yesterday. Lunch involved a tomato, cucumber, pepper & feta salad. Dessert was strawberries and blueberries with the marscapone (do we detect a theme?). Plus I’ve been baking a lot of kale, but I didn’t do that yesterday.

  3. Also, how many of those pages are actually about the search terms? Probably 5. In my experience teaching research skills, Google is a terribly imprecise tool, but that doesn’t seem to matter to most users.

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