Were drowning in numbers. And we are having a hard time trying to understand what they mean. Bejamin Disraeli used to say: «There
are three kinds of lies: lies, bloody lies, and statistics». That was over 150 years ago, but thigs havent changed except for the fact that there are many more numbers around and they are quoted all the time, all over the place. There is a wonderful little book on this subject, How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff, that was published in 1954 but is still being reprinted because its as accurate today as it was when he first wrote it.
They arent always lies. Statistics can be deliberately manipulated; or they can be false because of errors in the way data are collected and analyzed or in the interpretation of the results. Even when the mathematics are correct (often they are not) there can be differences depending on who is asked what and how, on how the data are collected and analyzed, on what the answers are supposed to mean. Its possible to prove with surveys and statistics amost anything or its opposite.
There is a numbers superstition. I a concept is expresses as a number (or supported by numbers) italmost automatically perceived as sientific even when it doesnt fit with other information or the numbers, if checked with a minimum of care and depth, turn out to be meaningless.
Numbers are often used to convey a feeling of accuracy in a business decision. When that is just padding or cosmetics for a strategy that is soundly based and well planned, the number tricks can be relatively harmless. But when its done to avoid the responsibility of a decision, or to disguise risks, it can be very dangerous.
For many years Ive ben dealing with numbers. For pure research and study, or for business reasons. Ive learnt to be very careful and never trust a number until Ive fully understood what it means and checked it against other sources, including a strong dose of common sense, practical experience and instinct (there is an art of smelling information; in France they call it the pifomètre).
Ive also learnt that where apparently there are no data there is always a way of finding some relevant information. And when there are too many its a fine art to pick the few that are really useful for a specific purpose. Above all, its never safe to base da decision (or an opinion) only (or predomoinantly) on data.
David Olgilvy used to say that market research is like a lamppost: it can shed some light on the road ahead, but we should not lean on it as drunkards do. That can be applied to any sort of statistics or number-crunching.
There is a particularly intense proliferation of data about the internet, including projections that are practically never confirmed by facts. Figures from different sources are often enormously different. None of that is surprising. Its pretty difficult to produce a sound analysis in the case of trends that have been followed and double-checked for decades. Its practically impossible to come up with tools that can truly measure something as complex and turbulent as the evolution of the internet.
There is a section on this site called dati where I am doing my best to collect, analyze and update data about the net worldwide, in Europe and in Italy. (I apologize for the fact that, so far, its only in Italian; but figures, tables, charts and maps are, I trust, pretty clear regardless of language). That is a tiresome and often disappointing task. I dont pretend (or believe) that any of the figures are inherently true. All contain biases and errors. But, by comparing sources and data over time and with each other, I think its possible to work out relevant trends and comparisons. And, of course, whenever an analysis turns out to be faulty (or the picture changes in the light of new data) its corrected in the next update.
In daily life, and in the practical case of an individual company or organization, things arent so difficult. Its much easier (though not quite as simple as it seems) to work out relevant statistics on a specific case. And one of the great advantages of an interactive system is that everything can be constantly tested, verified and adjusted at every step. Trial-and-error has always been the best tool for learning (and decision making). The internet is an ideal environment to do just that.