Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Welcome to the Numberyard

By themselves, numbers don’t possess any meaning. Put them in context and they have the power to move us in all directions across the emotional spectrum. Take the number 100. If this is my score on the recent Chemistry exam, I would have a right to celebrate. The same cannot be said when I am told that this is the number of days that oil from the Deepwater well spilled unabated into the Gulf of Mexico. The truth is that numbers don’t lie. They are the stuff of measurement and, as such, they represent a kind of evidence.

In our American justice system, one cannot be found guilty of a crime without there being some sort of evidence supporting the charge. In the same way, the validity of a claim, theory or opinion is bolstered by supporting evidence, usually represented by one or more well-chosen measurements. This then begs the question: How do I determine a well-chosen measurement? For some, a well-chosen measurement is one that best supports their position, reminding us of the adage that economists use statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost: More for support than illumination. Better to choose a measurement that has a high level of acceptance amongst your audience, one that is agreed upon gets us closer to the “light of truth.” This will go along way in establishing that your evidence can be trusted.

The pursuit of evidence, thus, is a two step process: choosing the right things to measure and gathering the results.  So it's time to start stocking the Numberyard with some good quality evidence and have some fun in the process.  Your contributions are welcome.

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