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.

22 Responses to Wield Your Statistics

  1. oaktree1234 says:

    5- its repeating what’s stated in number 1

  2. runnerd4 says:

    The 4th example is useless. There is no comparison to outside statistics of other nations. Reading this statement gives me no hint of whether this is a good or bad thing. I cannot use statements like this in my work because it takes away from the clarity of my writing.

  3. cardinal7218 says:

    10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.

    The sentence does not tell the reader if 10% is a good number or a bad number. Is 10% a higher number? Is it lower than before? Is it unfortunate or a medical miracle? We have no idea. The writer needs to give it a positive or negative connotation so the reader understands why the writer chose to use the statistic.

    I will purge sentences like this from my work.

  4. clementine102 says:

    I think #5 is the useless one because it is rewording what #1 says. It is using the statistic in a different way that is not necessary.

  5. shadowswife says:

    Number five seems to be the useless sentence because it mentions how African-Americans are “lacking behind by a few points”, but does not give us any proof how they are and instead give us statistics on other American women’s fertility rates.

  6. thecommoncase says:

    4- It doesn’t give any background on the statistic stated and is unclear by saying “in some degree”

  7. rowanstudent24 says:

    5 because it’s stating the same thing in sentence 1 but just in a different way.

  8. SmilingDogTheProfWants says:

    4 – 10% of American women are confirmed to have infertility and that African American women have a higher rate but we aren’t told if that information is an extremely high number or a low number.

  9. pardonmyfrench13 says:

    Statement 4 is useless:
    10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
    Doesn’t give enough information to decide if it is good or bad compared to other places.

  10. sonnypetro29 says:

    Number 4 is useless, it makes no sense and does not give you enough good enough to understand whats going on

  11. gooferious says:

    Sentence #2: I believe this sentence is the useless sentence because, nowhere in the original two facts from Michelle Obama’s book does it include anything about wealthy African countries.

  12. dayzur says:

    4 – We don’t know the percentage of infertility as it only states to “some degree”. The infertility rate for African-American women being higher also does not provide any valuable information if we don’t even know the rate it is comparing to. Without even knowing the rate at all, we don’t know if this is higher or lower than in other areas or if we should be proud of this result or not.

  13. corinnebuck1219 says:

    Number 4. This says “10% of Americans women between 18 and 45- more for African Americans- who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree”, with no explanation or context if 10% is good or bad in the grand scheme.

  14. mhmokaysure says:

    Statement 2 appears to be useless, as it does not give statistical support behind the statement, along with the fact that it is straying from the two groups originally mentioned in the writing.

  15. 612119d says:

    Number 5 the way it was put wasnt the most impactful way of using that.

  16. l8tersk8ter says:

    4. 10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
    There are no indicating phrases whether this is a good or bad number. The other sentences include “sadly,” “shockingly,” “skyrocketed,” and “remarkable,” all of which create an attitude for the sentences that lets the reader know how they should view the statistics

  17. BabyGoat says:

    Statement number 4 is useless because we have no way of knowing if 10% is a low number, high number, or just right. Also it just adds that African American women are at a higher risk, but how much worse is that risk? Can we compare these numbers to the past or another country?

  18. gabythefujoshi18 says:

    4-10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
    There is no indication of whether the statistic is good or bad, whether it’s high or low.

  19. aquarela says:

    ”10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.” It seems to be scientific and well explained, yet ”some degree” does not explain what the degree is.

  20. comicdub says:

    Number 4 is the useless sentence because it is never claimed whether this statistic is good or bad compared to other parts of the world.

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