Wield Your Statistics

They’re tools.

Statistics without direction and velocity are useless. They’re a bag of balls, or a rack of bats, blunt as a hockey puck or flabby as an under-inflated football. Pick your own silly analogy, but remember this: having them is pointless if you don’t know how to use them.

We all handle them differently.

Batting Stance
NOBODY ELSE HANDLES A BAT LIKE KEVIN YOUKILIS

Among the many approaches for handling statistics, you’ll find one that makes you comfortable, but some essentials are common to all good writers: they face forward, adopt a comfortable stance, stare down the opposition, deliver with confidence, and know how to use spin.

My number is a good number.

Readers need to be told how your number compares to the range of possible numbers. The statistic by itself means nothing until you place it into context.

Half Glass
  • A full 50%
  • As high as 50%
  • Has improved to 50%
  • Proud to announce we have achieved 50%
  • At 50%, the perfect balance

My number is a bad number.

Except for experts in the field of your endeavor, your readers are at your mercy to interpret the value of the numbers you share. They count on you to guide them to an understanding of the importance of the evidence you present.

Half Glass
  • A mere 50%
  • As low as 50%
  • Has sunk to 50%
  • Regret to admit we have achieved only 50%
  • At 50%, an awful compromise

Real-life example.

Michelle Obama on her book tour is talking frankly about infertility. The news announcer putting Obama’s miscarriage and subsequent worries into context shared these facts:

  • Approximately 10% of American women between 18 and 45 who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
  • The percentage is higher for African-American women.

I have no idea whether those numbers are higher or lower than I should have expected, and the announcer was no help. She could have used the statistics in any of several ways to help me understand.

MichellePregnant

Find the useless sentence.

Though these sentences below are contradictory and entirely fictional, all but one serve a clear rhetorical purpose.

MINOR IN-CLASS TASK: Find the useless sentence in the list below. Identify it by number in the Reply space, explain what’s wrong with it, and pledge to purge any sentences like it from your work. 

  1. Modern medicine and Americans’ overall health have reduced the infertility rate to 10% for American women, though sadly the rate is higher for African-Americans.
  2. Shockingly, the infertility rate for African-American women between 18 and 45 is higher than for women in many of the wealthiest African countries.
  3. The infertility rate has skyrocketed to 10% for all American women 18 to 45, even higher for African-Americans.
  4. 10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
  5. Though African-Americans lag behind by a few points, American women who wish to become pregnant have achieved a remarkable 90% fertility rate.

15 Responses to Wield Your Statistics

  1. mossmacabre says:

    Number 5 is the useless sentence. It makes the intention of the article unclear and uses language that makes light of the serious situation, which is unprofessional.

    Today in class we talked about maintaining control in your paper. Even if you start strong, you have to make sure your writing isn’t flimsy throughout the entire thing. You cannot have only a strong opening and a strong close.

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  2. toastedflatbread22 says:

    The useless sentence is number 4 because it does not give any context as to how the author feels about the situation. It also gives no hints as to how impactful the numbers are. The other sentences use words such as “sadly”, “shockingly”, ” to add emotion to the report-this way readers know whether the stats are positive or negative. They also use words such as “skyrocketed”, and “lag” to provide context for the impact of the numbers. This way readers know whether the stats are high or low. Merely laying the numbers out and expecting the readers to feel a certain way is ineffective-the writer must help them develop reactions to the report.

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  3. levixvice says:

    5. Though African-Americans lag behind by a few points, American women who wish to become pregnant have achieved a remarkable 90% fertility rate.

    What’s wrong with this sentence is that there was never any mention of any 90 percent in the original sentences above.

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  4. zzbrd2822 says:

    Sentence 4 is the useless sentence because the statistic was not put in context. The sentence does not explain whether 10% is a good or bad number. Words such as “shockingly” or “remarkable” were not used to describe the statistic properly.

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  5. minutemen14 says:

    To me, number 2 is the most useless as the statement isn’t even cohesive. It tries to compare the infertility rate of African American women to the wealthiest countries in Africa. There is so no connection here. We would need a lot more information to actually see the two thoughts linking together.

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  6. frogs02 says:

    4. 10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
    This is useless because there is no background information and the sentence seems like it has more to say. It does not say the feelings towards the 10%.

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  7. chickendinner says:

    Sentence 4 is the useless sentence, it provides no context to the information given that would help the reader understand what argument it is being used to make.

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  8. chickennugget444 says:

    I think the most useless sentence is #4, “ 10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.” I think this sentence is useless because it doesn’t show the authors opinion at all, and the statistic has no direction. Also, no descriptive words were used like in the author sentences, so the statistic is pointless because the reader has no idea how to feel about it.

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  9. krackintheneck says:

    Sentence 2 is completely useless. It is trying to make a connection between African-American women and the wealthiest African women which has no connection at all. It would need to be more clear or present a connection by using some evidence.

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  10. imaspookyghost says:

    number 2 is the useless sentence. it doesn’t give a number, direction, or a specific country to relate it to. It states “many of the wealthiest African countries” as if the reader already knows which countries it talking about, not to mention the lack of any numerical value to compare the two. We don’t know why it’s shocking or how much different the values are.

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  11. Lily4Pres says:

    #4 is the useless sentence. There is no information to help compare the number to get an understanding. There’s no word choice that would help the reader understand some sort of baseline for the statistic. The sentence simply says there’s a 10% infertility rate to those who attempt to conceive. There’s nothing more in the sentence that would give us an understanding of the number. Words like “skyrocketing” and “remarkable” as used in the other sentences would help the reader gauge what the number means.

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  12. calamariii says:

    Number 4 is a useless sentence because it does nothing to contextualize the statistic it gives as well as using no wording to tell the reader whether this statistic is good or bad. The other sentences use words like shockingly and remarkable to put the statistic in a negative or positive light.

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  13. nugget114 says:

    The useless sentence is number 5. The sentence’s purpose is completely unclear and if the only statistic that was going to be stated was about white women then African American women should not have even been mentioned. Also by saying that African American women “lag behind” seems kind of disrespectful especially if the thought isn’t completed by how much their numbers actually fall behind.

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  14. comatosefox says:

    2-4 all have the same age range 18-45 that we talked about being to wide, causing the stat to lose value, but I think 5 is useless. Not only does it talk about how African American women are lagging “behind a few points” but it then gives a positive stat about successful pregnancies’, It contradicts itself.

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  15. strawberryfields4 says:

    “10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.”
    Sentence four does not effectively use the statistic. The reader has no perspective if “10%” is a good or bad number in this scenario. Furthermore, the age range spans all the way to 45 years old, an age at which “infertility to some degree” does not seem unlikely to the average reader. There is no quality indicator to tell the reader what these random numbers should mean to them.

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