Mark Puppe

Mark Puppe







I’ve been in California helping a client for the past two weeks and answering “Where’s North Dakota?” for every local I encounter. However, USA Today has spared me the latter by publishing a headline and map announcing that “North Dakota tops analysis of corruption” on a per capita basis. Meanwhile, the governor of Illinois gets arrested for trying to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate and faces charges of failing to make one for himself with the barber.

USA Today’s metric is messed up and brings to mind a caveat for using numbers to determine merit:

Statistics are not a substitute for good judgment.

People use numbers to convince us all the time because they quantify a claim thereby making it more credible. Whether they’re accurate can be a 50/50 crapshoot.

So, North Dakota’s the most corrupt state in the nation, eh? On a per capita basis, you betcha! In reality? Not a prayer. The 640,000 people living in North Dakota have this God forsaken tendency to pay attention to their government and hold it accountable (most of the time). If a public official gets convicted for corruption there, s/he typically ends up in jail or moving somewhere else (like Illinois) to save face, literally. Yet, twisting numbers sure can make those North Dakotans look evil.

Earlier this year, Men’s Health ranked Fargo the “Fifth Drunkest City.” However, the stats can also show Fargo is more civic minded than smashed. Men’s Health used the number of DUI arrests and report cards issued by local Mothers Against Drunk Driving groups. There’s no data about the extent to which arrested drivers were intoxicated or how many report cards were issued, but suddenly Fargo is the fifth drunkest? Well, there are about as many DUI check points as there are people in Fargo (I’ve passed 100% of mine, thereby making me a 100% responsible driver). Fargo’s MADD chapter is probably more active and better attended than others, so it probably submitted more report cards per capita, too. Too bad I don’t have the numbers to prove it.

North Dakota’s small population doesn’t necessarily make it a victim either. For example, its senators have the same voting power as those from urban states (like Illinois), so it inherently becomes top contender for “Most Efficient Vacuum of Tax Dollars” – according to the numbers.

Telling my bank “I got a 40% raise after just one year!” would’ve mandated a mortgage under the Affordable Housing Act. The statement’s true, but represents how Mom and Dad increased my allowance from 25 cents/week to a whopping 35 when mowing the lawn got added to my weekly duties.

The examples go on and on and I bet you’ve got a few, too. At the end of it all, we need to be wary of how people use numbers to back their claims. Using them is a crafty way to convince an audience and I’m not saying they’re bad, just that it’s a good idea consider them with reasonable doubt before accepting them as true.


Reader Comments (3)

Well said. Amen!!!

December 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJudy Kroh

Speechwriter, too? Send those cards, Mark. The day for communications consulting has come.

December 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDeanna

Boo-rah Mark!!! Well said! I don't know about the statistics here in Texas, but I DO know my odds of winning the lottery aren't one gazillion in one... My odds are 50/50... I'm either going to win or I am not. ;-)

December 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Jacobson

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