Keeping Things Simple
There are two types of answers to every question: simple answers and not-so-simple ones. When given the choice between receiving a simple answer and a more complicated one, the vast majority of people will select and accept the more digestible response. This inclination towards simplicity can be seen throughout many aspects of the human experience, though its impact is most important in our processes of accepting and understanding facts.
Joel Best’s “Telling the Truth about Damned Lies and Statistics” briefly outlines the timeline of a statistic gone from truthful to wildly inaccurate. A slight but significant change in phrasing of a statistic relating to child gun deaths resulted in a speaker claiming that, by a conservative estimate, 35 trillion children had been killed by guns at the time of speaking — an impossible falsehood.
At its core, the mistake is the result of the socially constructed idea that all facts as presented to us are always true. While this should in theory be the case, personal values and human affinities for simplicity often create facts and statistics that are flawed in the way they present data, or even fundamentally flawed by presenting inaccurate data itself. In his writing, Best focuses on statistics in particular, noting that while they often seem suspect, they are necessary in the practice of summarizing and clarifying that which is not clear in our complex world. This necessity to simplify that which is complex can create problems when carried out incorrectly. Major issues arise when people take any nicely-presented number as a fully true statistic even if it has little grounding in reality.