“There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”
~ Mark Twain?1
Wanna make a point? Dress it up with statistics. Adds oomph to your argument. If you have “facts” to back up what you say, you must be telling the truth, right?
If life were only so simple. But it isn’t, and we see the results every day.
- How do you define a “treat”? Is it simply something that gives you pleasure? Or is it something that indulges a sweet tooth? Big Food argues you are an “unreasonable consumer”2 if you expect a treat to be good for you and give you pleasure.
- When people are entrenched in positions, they’re hesitant to consider new evidence. Consider the latest climate change study by NOAA. Both sides of the debate doubt NOAA’s findings and are disinclined to budge in their beliefs.
- Pollsters ask questions about the same issues but get vastly different results. It depends on how the questions are phrased, what words are used, even the tone and gender of the person conducting the survey.
Why do people take liberties with facts? Often they justify it as serving a higher truth.
Any conclusion can sound plausible as long as everyone accepts certain underlying assumptions, whether about the preferred role of government, the functioning of an economy, or traditional versus contemporary societal values.
Problem is, they are subjective — and if the assumptions are wrong, so are the conclusions.
The most powerful forces in society begin with vastly different and irreconcilable assumptions. They’ve staked out positions on the extremes, hold their convictions deeply and won’t be swayed.
By contrast, individuals in the middle are often so busy with their daily lives that they lack time or inclination to delve deeply into arguments. They are more susceptible to persuasion, and that makes them the most prized target.
They won’t believe everything they’re told. But they’ll accept what fits most comfortably with the world they embrace, and they’ll resist being tugged too hard or too far in other directions.
The art (because it’s far from a science) is discerning what that sweet spot is, and aiming directly for it.
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1. Twain may or may not have said it first. To paraphrase an adage about success and failure, “A good quote has many fathers but a bad pun is an orphan.”
2. Will Papa, Hershey’s head of global R&D, Fortune June 2015