A wee while ago I decided to check out “Happify.com”. Don’t judge me! There was an article in the New Yorker describing it as “the science of happiness”. I like science. I like happiness. I could do with a great deal more of both in my life. It was free. I thought it was worth the try.
As it happens, it was worth precisely what I paid for it. All I achieved was the start of yet another ulcer, because within minutes I landed on this priceless gem:
“People with stronger social relationship have a 50% lower risk of mortality.”
Now, call me picky, but last I checked mortality is 100% for all of us. And it’s not a risk – it’s a certainty. You, me, the dog, everyone you know, everyone you don’t know, we will all die. If this is science, then I’m the Queen of Sheba. Hell, it’s not even grade-school statistics.
Aside from demonstrating conclusively that I really would not be cut for selling happiness, the above paragraph is representative of a trend that has bothered me for ages. As a society, we seem to have the unfortunate tendency to swallow the most ridiculous statistics as if they were gospel. We seem willing to accept any “fact” or “theory” as long as someone throws us a number to back it up. It doesn’t seem to matter if they clash horribly with what we know to be true: our experience, knowledge and rational abilities just aren’t worth as much as statistical evidence, because science.
As it happens, if you have the slightest familiarity with statistical techniques it can take a handful of seconds to work out that a lot of the numbers thrown at us are basically worthless. Most of the time, however, we don’t seem to go through that analytical process. It can’t be just laziness. It’s not that we don’t make the effort to demand the actual data and run our own statistical analysis on it – if we had to do that every time someone throws us a figure, we wouldn’t have time for anything else. What worries me is that we seem to just swallow numbers even with they come complete with a disclaimer, such as those shown in ads. “90% of users found an improvement!!” followed by small print along the lines of “the sample size was so small we ran the test in a telephone box, and the improvement is subjective and temporary anyway”. Those numbers are ridiculous – we are clearly told that they are – yet they still work on us; if they didn’t, advertisers would not use that trick.
It seems that numbers carry an authority that can cause our brain to go on stand-by. If you combine official-looking numbers with an emotive content, then the brain switches off completely. It may be a defence mechanism. If you try to question the numbers attached to sensitive subjects, not only you have to do high-level thinking, which is hard, but you also tend to get verbally assaulted for being insensitive and uncaring. How DARE you question our DATA! Can’t you see how bad this is? Whose side are you on?!