I’ve never been much for paint by number – not as a child when it was popular, and certainly not for my own children.
Still, there is value to painting by number – including the importance of following rules and guidelines, enhancing our capacity for organized thinking, not to mention the necessity of numbers in countless scenarios.
Where would we be without scientific data? Where would we be without calculating, mapping, planning, comparing? Don’t we need our marketing research, our demographics, or the journalist’s figures to anchor an argument?
Numbers used as a tool?
They’re vitally important.
Reliance on Data to Support Opinion
Numbers may not lie per se, but they can be deceiving. Politicians cherry pick data sets to prop up their agendas and justify their policies. Individuals whip out the latest trends to win an argument with a spouse, a buddy, a colleague.
We all do it; there’s nothing wrong in it. We put faith in “the numbers.” But what if we’re relying on data out of context? What if the studies we use are poorly designed, or the particulars plucked to make a point miss related points out of ignorance or misunderstanding?
By nature, I’m cautious when it comes to data interpretation. It’s too easy to mix apples and oranges, to forget that averages are not all-powerful, to toss out percentages and ratios without essential detail.
We make decisions based on these data. We judge our personal lives in comparison to trends. We may arrive at wrong-headed conclusions, false expectations, a narrowing of options which is utterly unnecessary.
Average This, Average That – Are Averages Misleading?
In an informative and insightful opinion piece in The New York Times, Stephanie Coontz provides excellent examples of exactly this, by schooling us in what she refers to as “the tyranny of the average.” She makes a point of exemplifying how easily averages are skewed, and also, clarifying that average means neither normal nor typical.
In “When Numbers Mislead,” she explains:
Averages are useful because many traits, behaviors and outcomes are distributed in a bell-shaped curve, with most results clustered around the middle and a much smaller group of outliers at the high and low ends. Knowing the average number of births in an area can help builders decide how many bedrooms are likely to be needed in new houses, and alert policy makers to a brewing fertility crisis.
But averages can be misleading when a distribution is heavily skewed at one end, with a small number of unrepresentative outliers pulling the average in their direction…
Ms. Coontz goes on to explain that simply by adding two high-earning individuals to a small town, you immediately alter the average significantly. Her example drops the incomes of Warren Buffet and Oprah Winfrey into Steubenville, Ohio, increasing the average household revenue by more than 60% – overnight.
Ms. Coontz gives us a variety of examples in “When Numbers Mislead,” and I highly recommend the article. She also reminds us just how many domains rely on average data – whether discussing time to grieve from loss of spouse, damage done to children of divorce, or our much pondered preoccupation with the pursuit of happiness.
Certainly, a child’s approach to creativity is not the same as the entrepreneur’s. The former has little at stake and is engaged in spontaneous learning, while the latter is creatively building a viable organization, and one that is profitable. Numbers are not a requirement in the first case; they’re vital in the second.
But the balance of both – open-mindedness, originality, or simply coloring (thinking) outside the lines without regard to anything but its discoveries – can and should coexist with the regimen of facts and figures that quantifies real phenomena, recognizes better options, and guides us in our persuasion, our choices, and our feedback systems.
Surely, we don’t want to “paint by number” exclusively, setting aside individual vision and adhering instead to a follower mentality. Surely we don’t really want to rely on numbers presented without considering the caveats, the context, and the exceptions.
I hardly believe that we set out to discard our capacity for independent thinking, yet given the frenzied pace and superficial manner in which we “consume” our news and regurgitate trends, it’s easy to fall into a pattern that leads in that direction. I would caution us all (as I caution myself), to read with a questioning mind, to use common sense, to vet our sources, and to remember what Ms. Coontz reminds us – average is part of a bell curve; average is only an indicator.
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