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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lies, damned lies, and anecdotals

Most people seek the truth; many claim to know it. What they all end up with, however, is just an opinion. Moreover, as an old self-deprecating joke goes, if you put three Juice in a room, you'll most likely end up with five opinions.

What is this thing called truth, really? In my humble opinion, it is at best what I would call a "personal" truth, which is really nothing more than a cherished opinion. Yet, the associated cherishing is sometimes so strong that people will even sacrifice their lives to defend it.

An expression made popular by Mark Twain is, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics," which disparages the misuse of statistics to support a plethora of conflicting conjectures. One reason why statistics are such flexible purveyors of "truth" is that it is relatively easy to extrapolate reasonableness to certainty. If a mathematical analysis can produce an expectation having an associated confidence of 95%, well, can anyone doubt its 100% validity? Only an annoying stickler for rigor (i.e., a geek), and who cares what they think, am I right?

But even such misuse of statistics pales in comparison to so-called anecdotal evidence, which passes for everyman's go-to shortcut to righteousness. Just about anyone can recall a cousin, whose friend's sister's tax advisor stated categorically that ... And with the advent of the Web and Google search, just about anyone can "prove", based on anecdotal evidence, that your grandfather was really your grandmother, and, furthermore, that she wore combat boots! This constitutes the democratization of relative truth, moral relativism, as well as just about anything else.

All of which reminds me of a joke:
The CEO of a family-owned business dies, and his eldest son takes over the reins of the business. His first day on the job, he decides to evaluate his staff of advisors, in order to choose a deputy executive:
  1. The new CEO sends for his legal advisor, and asks, "How much is 2 plus 2?" The startled lawyer suspects it's a trick question, and he replies, "Well, there is much case law to support the view that it equals 4, but I'll do a thorough review and get back to you on that."
  2. Subsequently, his engineering, production, and personnel executives are posed the same question, and all give a tentative reply that it is 4, but promise to do a thorough review to make certain.
  3. Finally, his financial advisor is asked the same question. The CPA moves closer to the CEO, and in a conspiratorial tone asks, "How much would you like it to be?
You can guess who became the new Deputy CEO.

Post #1,238 Lies, damned lies, and anecdotals

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