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Ed's Ink: Jumping To Conclusions About Statistical Data & Events

Contributor: Editorial Staff
Posted: January 28, 2018

data

This is a story with a lesson. Dr. Morris Hamburg in his much-acclaimed Wharton School course on statistical decision-making used this unforgettable example to illustrate different interpretations to statistical data.

"The heroine of our story…is a grammar school teacher, who wanted to demonstrate the harmful effects of drinking liquor to a class of eight-year-olds. She placed two glass jars of worms on her desk…”

“...Into the first jar, she poured some water. The worms continued to move about, and did not appear to have been adversely affected at all by the contact with the water…”

“Then she poured a bottle of whiskey into the second jar. The worms became still and appeared to have been mortally stricken...”

“The teacher then called on a student and asked, 'Johnny, what is the lesson to be learned from this experiment?'...”

“…Johnny, looking very thoughtful replied,' I guess it proves it's good to drink whiskey, because it will kill any worms you may have in your body'…"

Lesson learned: Statisticians would call this a prime example of a statistical non sequitur, a Latin term meaning "it doesn't follow."

Dr. Hamburg's point: Even when statistical data are above reproach, much leeway still exists for individuals to interpret them in a manner that best supports their mindset and/or prejudices.

Stanley Schor, a noted bio-statistician, once colorfully described this as: "Statistical results are like expert witnesses; you can get them to testify for either side."

Yet little Johnny was well-meaning. His interpretation of the outcome of the whiskey experiment was based on a mindset and/or the perception of an eight-year-old.

We forgive little Johnny. But it's becoming more difficult to forgive those that leap from a statistical fact to a convenient conclusion – without the one jumping to conclusions being handicapped by any consideration of alternative conclusions or even by any rules of simple logic.

A timeless verse from Robert Browning best describes the painful truth about fixed, rigid mindsets: "As in your sort of mind, So in your sort of search; you'll find What you desire."

Will Rogers also addressed the issue of fixed mindsets when he said: "It ain't so much the things we don't know that gets us in trouble. It's the things we know that ain't so…"

Why People Can View The Same Facts Differently: The Role Of Perception

Perception consists of two components – namely, knowledge and experience. People with different knowledges and experiences can view the same facts differently. 

What A sees so vividly, B does not see at all. And, therefore, what A argues has no pertinence to B's concerns and vice versa.

"Just as the human ear," Peter F. Drucker wrote, "does not hear sounds above a certain pitch, so does human perception all together not perceive what is beyond its range of perception." 

In his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Drucker (who is considered the founder of modern management) reminds us, "When a change in perception takes place, the facts do not change. Their meaning does." How we see things influences how we understand them and how we respond to them.

To repeat: Knowledge and experience determines our perception, that is, what we see and how we see it. With more knowledge and experience, perceptions can change. 

Mark Twain once quipped, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Perhaps when 8-year old Johnny is 18 his response/interpretation to the same facts will change. We certainly hope so.

Optimists V. Pessimists: Same Facts, Different Conclusions

Optimists typically see opportunities in every problem. Pessimists are known for seeing problems in every opportunity.

In the often-stated analogy of the glass seen as half empty or, as half full, the former view reflects a mood of pessimism, an unacceptable characteristic for executives charged with the responsibility of making effective change happen.

Whereas, the latter view mirrors optimism, enabling the executive to be opportunity-focused, that is, possessed with the traits of passion and perseverance and not intimidated by doing the new and different.

This was illustrated by Drucker in the story of a shoe manufacturer that sent two salespersons to an underdeveloped country to determine if there was a market for shoes.

One reported back there was no demand there for shoes because the people did not wear shoes; the other perceived a major opportunity because the people did not wear shoes and by teaching the people the benefit of shoes the organization would achieve a first-mover advantage and capture the market.

Our point? An executive who automatically thinks about how new ventures could fail and a counterpart who explores what the possibilities are for moving into an untapped market demonstrates how one's perception can either shutdown opportunity; or attempt to create a new opportunity.

Summary & Conclusions


A college education never hurt anyone who was willing to learn something after he or she graduated.

To succeed in today's new world, we must orient ourselves toward scholarly and emotional growth through continuous self-education.

There's a built-in treasure chest in our heads. It contains the answers to billions of questions.

We have to learn how to get that treasure out of our heads. How to make it an active part of daily problem-solving. How to make full use of our greatest asset, the ability to think.

MMN contributor Jeremy Hunter, Associate Professor of Practice at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont University, has done pioneering work in developing processes that literally force our brains to work in new and marvelous ways by adapting new thought patterns to old experiences.

How do we change our pre-conceived perceptions? One of the first the most important things we must learn is to listen. We must continuously learn new ways of thinking, enjoy what we learn then look for new ways to apply it.

Learning is thinking with other people's ideas. We must read and absorb. We must periodically take short courses and learn more and more from the experiences of others.

In short, we must increase our idea sources and other learning opportunities. Unless we do these things, entropy will triumph.

In the final analysis, successful work requires real work. It doesn't get done with rhetoric, wishful thinking, or shortcuts.

It requires discipline, careful study, command of relevant core competencies, good sense, and thoroughness proportionate to what is known and what is at stake.

The requirement for study and "keeping up" is not confined to executives, electrical engineers, cyber security experts and other highly trained/educated professionals. The purveyors of data and information face the same necessity if they are emotionally honest and truly dedicated to separating fact from fiction.