Figures do not lie, but liars do figure. – Mark Twain
Out of all the questions I have been asked in my career, by far the most common question I am asked is “are you sure?”
I don’t take offense to that question—I have been witness to the process of comprehension of data for many years. As I have learned in my positions of being an analyst, numbers mean nothing without a narrative to put it into context. Numbers on a page serve no purpose without an explanation or frame of reference.
When reviewing figures in a report or in a spreadsheet, you review the figures through a process of converting numbers into language. Numbers represent values that we can communicate and comprehend. By converting numbers into language, you also bring in other skills of communication, like your experiences.
Have you ever reviewed metrics of your department or organization and gotten the impression that the figures were incorrect? Your experiences are the reason you get gut feelings. By using language to understand values, the same mechanism for judging a false statement you read or hear is the same for when you review figures. It is why I believe that analysis is the confirmation of a gut feeling - most poeple have way more experience comprehending communication than comprehending statistics int heir lifetime so it is the stronger skill.
It is why I do not get offended by the “are you sure?” question. I understand that it is being asked because the figures do not match the expected outcome of the viewer. It allows for further communication of the narrative that I am presenting. It is an opportunity to build up my trustworthiness and confidence.
The famous Mark Twain quote “figures do not lie, but liars do figure” represents the heart of the pros and cons of analysis. Comprehension of statistics is not simply validation of the numbers, but the belief in the narrative that it represents. Figures become a tool of persuasion, and as Twain’s cautious quote points out, tools for potential lies and falsehoods. There is power in information, and even though figures do not have an innate ability to be true or false, the influence of people certainly can.
Don’t get me wrong, not every person providing you data is lying to you! Whether you are reviewing the work of someone else, or creating your own narrative to figures, it is subject to the context and experience with which you review it. Keep in mind that as humans apply narrative to figures, it introduces the opportunity for bias to form, even within your own evaluation.
Data and the application of data requires language more than people believe. We are human computers, and our brain operates most often through language. It is easy to validate that 2+2=4 because we have experiences that have taught us that 2+2 has never equaled anything but 4. The figures will never lie, but the narrative and the persuasion that comes with data analysis is something that can be questioned, especially if your gut is nudging you. In other words, it is helpful to always ask yourself “are you sure?”