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Stats and Beautiful Stories

5 Jun 2018 - 15:15 by Nigel Rose

I like stats and I like stories and I like it even better when the two are put together, because that’s where real richness is found.Numbers without stories are often, in my experience, misinterpreted or misunderstood, whereas stories without numbers can lack force and are dismissed as anecdotal.

What I don’t like is when people prioritise stats over stories, and that happens all too often. People believe, erroneously, that numbers are “harder”, more reliable, safer, less open to criticism, provide more truth. Often, this seems to me a way of making numbers mean what they want them to mean, rather than any true representation of their worth.

I trained as an engineer, dealing with numbers all the time, and if there’s one thing that a scientific training gives you, it’s an appreciation of how tricksy numbers are. Just when you think you’ve proved something you find that you’ve failed to take into account some vital factor or the level of error, or assumed that something is true because you’ve got the same result twice. The number of pitfalls in numbers is legion. In preparation for some research I was doing, I once read (or to be truthful, read some of), a thousand page book on the preparation and interpretation of quantitative surveys. Don’t trust polls…...remember the last general election.

I’m not pretending it’s easy to make stats and stories work together but it is possible and there really isn’t any useful alternative. Other options are a kind of avoidance tactic - it’s saying that we don’t really want to deal with the real complexity and richness of data, we just want something easy that appears to prove what we want to prove.

Let’s take the measurement of social value as an example. There are numerous consultants and schemes that claim to be able to measure the monetary worth of the full range of social, economic and environmental benefits that organisations offer. They then come out with a single number that the organisation (or the commissioner buying their services) can use. For every pound spent in the organisation (or tender) the social value is £42. This is just silly. It is impossible to reduce the rich tapestry of an organisation’s contribution to the world to a single number and nobody should try. Each system or consultant, of course, comes up with a different number and they only try to measure a limited number of things, the things they think are easier (but aren’t), like the social value of volunteers or hiring apprentices.

Several years ago a right-wing think tank, ResPublic, published a report called “A Community Right to Beauty”. It focused on the idea that beauty in natural and human landscape and buildings is an absolute public good which has an intense and positive impact on our feelings of wellbeing. This seems to me to be an uncontestable truth. Everyone I’ve ever met attempts to bring beauty into their lives, whether through plants or ornaments or decoration, or tattooing or clothing or haircuts. It is a central part of our human experience.

Would you trust any measurement system that either didn’t acknowledge the importance of beauty or tried to reduce beauty to a number? I wouldn’t. I’d want to hear the rich and complex stories of the people who benefit. That’s the kind of stats and beautiful stories I’d like to hear.

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