9/09/2011

When I am King: Statistical Significance

When I am King...

Statistics will be .3% more productive.

I read the following on a news site recently: “The productivity of U.S. workers slipped 0.3% during the second quarter, after falling 0.6% the prior quarter.” And I thought, what am I supposed to do with this information? Should I type faster? Think more cleverer? Stop visiting the bathroom so much and use the jar in my office instead?

Where do these statistics come from? (Don’t answer that, economists. I guarantee I won’t be interested in the real answer.) More importantly, what should we do with such abstract information? It’s like someone knocking on my door in the middle of the night to tell me the iron content of my drinking water - am I supposed to care?

I think the real reason that they tell us these things is so that we can worry more.

We have so many truly scary things to worry about in this world: terrorism, natural disasters, employment, our health, more reality TV shows - the list goes on and on. Each of these things is real and could affect us at any time. If we really thought hard about them, we’d die of stress long before any of them could actually do us in.

That’s where these other worries come in: they make us think about completely intangible ideas, complete with meaningless numbers and data. We’re so busy worrying about all of these things that we can’t possibly understand, much less do anything about, that we spend less time worrying about the ones that will actually kill us. In so doing, we live happier lives. It’s not that we’re less stressed or have less worries; in fact these things give us far more to worry about. But it’s a less focused and reasonable worry, and therefore a safer one.

When I am King, I’ll have my ministry issue statistics on many more things for people to think about. Why limit ourselves to economic growth and productivity data? What about body fat density averages? Number of donuts consumed per capita, per day? Number of tweets per hour, as a national average and per region? Tubes of toothpaste capped, with charts? Beers consumed per day: weekend vs. weekday?

We’ll be so busy trying to understand the data that we won’t even have time to worry and will lead .7% more productive lives.
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