Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bullshit and Statistics

I read an interesting article on Ben Goldacre's site Bad Science about a book called How to Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff. This small but important tome discussed the ability of people to use statistics to make claims about various topics. Not long after reading this, I read a headline on - "Kiwis prefer classic rock over pop". Now while this headline gladdens my heart, being an old school head banger myself, I immediately asked the question "How do they know?" Did they interview every single music listener in NZ and poll them on their music preferences?

Reading the article clarified it a bit where it says in the first line "CD-buying Kiwis would rather rock to Led Zeppelin than listen to younger artists, recording industry figures show." So the sample has been defined as CD buying Kiwi's, which is different to the headline which states just "Kiwis". Going on more into the article it explains that CD purchases were the basis of the statistics, and even states "Album sales were "strongly filtered towards hard copies" which were often bought by people aged 30-plus." So we have narrowed the sample even more - NZ CD purchaser's, predominantly over 30 years old.

Looking at this, its not really a surprising statistic - older people who still buy CD's prefer Classic Rock to modern pop. No shit - really? Older people like older music? I would never have guessed. Might as well have a headline "People with no teeth prefer mushy food" or "Journo's with no real news to report make shit up".

I know its not a big deal, but it did highlight to me the regularity with which the mainstream media frequently use statistics to make news. I'm not saying they are the only one - governments, corporations and advertising companies regularly do the same thing. It's just another interesting fact and something to keep in mind the next time someone says something like "MAC User's more likely to pay for music that PC users". This story in particular smells like a big pile of steaming crap and basically states that Mac users are more honest that PC users based on stats garnered by an Entertainment Industry analyst and posted on AppleInsider. Whatever.

Just remember - check the numbers and be sceptical.

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