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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

Lies, damned lies and statistics

It's been said that there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. While that quote is attributed to Mark Twain, he (Twain) attributed it to former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who, it is possible, never said it in the first place! But I digress. This past summer camp season (2023), I had a chance to gather large data from some of the campers, while peering into their collective psyches and learning about them, all in a way that showed them how people use data to answer questions about society.

4 out of 5 raptor | www.quickmeme.com

First up in the discussion I had with my 2nd and 3rd grade students was a question. Something along the lines of "Who's ever heard a statement like '4 out of 5 dentists approve of _____' or '9 out of 10 people prefer _____'?" Well turns out that only a few in my class had heard that, which lead to the next part of the discussion, "How do we GET those statements?" To which I got a lot of blank faces. That was and remains okay =)


But it turns out, like so much else these days, it's data that can drive people to create statements like the ones above and data that makes us do and think things. Take our thinking raptor here for example, he/she/it brings up a great point.


So let's discuss, what is it about data that makes us so passionate for it? Well, it is a statistical look into the minds of people. If you want to know how a population feels about certain things, you have to turn that into data. How do you do that? Questions and answers. Quantifiable data! Turn how people feel into numbers and you've got data you can quantify and use to show all sorts of handy things.


Before I go much further, I would like you to give my questionnaire a shot using this Google form. There's no collection of names, just like summer camp, no collection of anything that singles out who you are, just the information you have in your feelings. Please take a minute or two to complete this survey. It's okay, I can wait until you're done =) I am going to have all this data sent to me so I can hopefully do a follow up or update to this post to see what the readers think.

Thanks for helping me out on this data collection survey. It's going to be very interesting to see what you all think about these 10 questions!


But let's get to it, the campers' feelings. Let's change into numerical form, how they feel/felt about these 10 innocuous questions to see what kind of lies, damned lies and statistics we have.


I asked a total of 57 campers from 2nd through 7th their thoughts on pizza, broccoli, Art, Gym, Science, Social Studies, their teacher(s) from last year, their brother/sister (if they have one or more), hot weather and cold weather. While at first I thought it would be easy to tabulate the results. That is until I realized that I would have 570 unique data points! Which is something I brought to my classes attention as we discussed what it means to use data. Now, 570 data points seems like a lot, but let's remember, this is all relative. When a survey is done in the public, there may be many thousands of data points!! I only needed a few minutes to add all the data to an Excel spreadsheet and have it tabulate the results I wanted; imagine how long it would take to crunch these numbers if I'd asked for the opinion of an entire grade at a local Middle or High school!? What about the entire adult population of Manhasset, which is an estimated 7,800 people!! I think you're starting to see my point, there is MASSIVE amounts of data out there, just waiting to tell you something!


Tabulated data from Mr. Frank's Social Science Questionnaire. | Courtesy of Frank


Back to the campers and the lies that statistics can tell you. As you look at the data tables above, you may feel intimated so let me help ease that feeling. I am also going to add "facts" that these statistics can tell you, so see if you can find the "lies" hidden within the truths about the campers from the Summer Camp of 2023. On this survey I used a scale, where 1 was a low score and 10 was a high score. Of the campers surveyed, 98% of them said they like eating broccoli and 100% of them said they like eating pizza! Perhaps these are somewhat shocking but as you delve deeper, you can see the numbers supporting that BUT... Look closer and you'll see that on average, campers gave eating pizza score of 6.32 but pizza got an 8.51! (I have rounded to two decimal points here.)

As we look at Art and Gym class, I can happily say that 100% of the students liked going to both classes! Wonderful to hear if you're a teacher of those subjects but again, look closer. With an average score of 7.97, the campers truly enjoy going to Art, but with a score of 6.71 was Gym! Look even closer and you'll see that the Mode (the number that occurs the most in a sample size, for those who've forgotten *wink*) for both Gym and Art is 10. Meaning that while for Gym there were plenty of campers who gave a 1 as their answer, the majority said 10!

All these numbers created a picture I was not expecting. Now perhaps that was foolish of me but as I crunched the numbers I came across something that might be biased towards something. Dictionary.com gives us the definition for bias, which was also something discussed with my class.

bias [ bahy-uhs ]

noun

  1. a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned

For example, if we were in a pizzeria, and I asked who likes eating pizza, I would assume that everyone walking in likes pizza, otherwise why would they be there? But if I went to a meeting of vegetarians and asked them what their favorite meat was, well I'm sure I'd get nothing. Biases are built into everything, which is why we seek to eliminate them from surveys like this. And as uncomfortable as discussing them can be sometimes, it is important to do so, so you can eliminate them from your daily lives or surveying.


Because we are a Science Museum, the questions had to be asked: How much do you like Science? How much do you like Social Studies? Let's go to the numbers and find out! Turns out, unsurprisingly, that 100% of our surveyed campers REALLY like Science! While most of them do not like Social Studies. Coming in with a score of 8.76, Science is clearly thought of very highly, while with a staggering score of 5.41, Social Studies isn't thought of very highly. But 98% of the students reported that they like Social Studies. Looking at these two numbers (98% like S.S. and 5.41 score) you can see how the previous sentence appears to show that kids here really like it. Now, could me asking the question of liking Science have a bias built into it? Sure could. But what if I'd asked that question at a History Museum? Or asked older students, say High School age? How different would those numbers be? Impossible to say. At least in this setting.


One of the things I found most fascinating was the question about their last year's teacher and their sibling(s) (if they had any). Now I am the eldest of five siblings and without doubt, my love/like for them has waxed and waned over the years. Let's be frank with each other, sometimes we really don't like our siblings. Fair? But, according to the survey, ONLY 95% like their sibling(s)! From the 57 questionnaires I got back, three of them gave a zero as their answer! Now, some omitted their answer because they didn't have a sibling but still, some flat out, basically said "Nope, don't like them at all." However, the most common answer was a score of 10 and the average score for liking their sibling(s) was only 7.27! What a fascinating insight into children's minds; keep in mind that the questionnaires went to 2nd through 7th graders!

As for their previous years' teacher... once again, 100% liked them but don't kid yourself, some replies were 1s, 2s and 3s! Most answered with a 10 but still, the minds of children show themselves when anonymity. But let's face it, we're all most honest when there's no way for our answers to get back to us. Think of those 1s, 2s and 3s as the equivalent of keyboard muscles on social media or something else anonymous, you can say what you want and nobody gets hurt.


Our last peek inside the minds of the eldest campers here revolves around something near and dear to me, the temperature outside. I really dislike the hot weather, REALLY. I joke that during the hot weather I can only take off so many layers before I start to make a spectacle or embarrass myself, usually to the laughter of those I make that joke to. But I was shocked to see that for both cold and hot weather, the mode was a 5! And that for both cold and hot weather, 98% campers said they like both kinds of temperature. Okay, great but the average scores tell the truth. With a score of 5.96, hot weather is clearly a "meh" type of feeling and cold weather's score is 6.59! Now the difference here is quasi-significant, as the different between the two scores is 0.63. The evidence is clear, the surveyed campers clearly prefer cold temperatures to hot ones.

Frazz comic strip, May 8, 2006 | Jeff Mallett

I titled this post "Lies, damned lies and statistics" because if you wanted to, you could use these numbers to come up with all sorts of "lies". If I had made a choice, I could have asked them their sex and broken it down further and said something like "Girls clearly liked their teacher from last year more than the boys did." Or, with a proper score, "Boys clearly hate Social Studies." As a baseball fanatic, I know all too well how numbers/stats are used and perhaps abused in the game, but numbers can tell you so much about a person (or players). You just want to ensure that any numbers you're using are telling a truth and not lying for you.


Damned statistics.

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