Statistics, Data, and Math

By Richard Marinucci

Someone once told me that 82 percent of statistics are made up! I realize many have heard some variation of this, and I have no idea who to credit as the original source. Regardless, I do think this has an element of truth in that I don’t think a majority of people understand mathematics, statistics, and the application of data. Too often the information is slanted or spun to prove a point, and seldom are the numbers effectively challenged.

This can be found in politics and even with the many programs passed off as news today. Politicians take great liberty with statistics and data. It could be because they really don’t understand them or that they don’t believe that their constituents understand so they can be buffaloed. Within the media, it may be a case of needing to get things out quicker than the competition or just the need to get attention. I recently heard a news program stating that there are 1,000,000 volunteer fire departments. I am sure it was an honest mistake, but there was no attempt to correct it. The sheer number helped to make the point.

Questioning the Math
Prior to entering the fire service I was a math teacher. My first bachelor’s degree had a major in mathematics. That was a long time ago and I have no idea how to do calculus or any other advanced mathematics. I have trouble helping my kids with their homework! But, I still understand some of the basic principles and often question some of the “math” that others do. It is especially telling to me when others use percentages to express their perception of a situation. I know just enough to know when someone is flat out making up something. It may not be intentional or malicious but, depending upon the audience, it can ruin your credibility.

So much progress is made through trust and relationships. When statistics or data don’t add up or cannot be confirmed, there is a risk that trust will be broken or at least diminished. Understanding statistics, data, and math can help avoid making statements that cannot be verified. Once someone has been found to not be quite correct with information, others have a tendency to question subsequent claims. There is great value in presenting legitimate and verifiable information even if it does not always produce the desired results. Knowing and understanding the mathematical component is important and can give you an advantage. You will build trust and have the ability and credibility to question information.

I am not recommending that you publicly call someone out if you know they are feeding someone a line. There is a time and place for everything. Tact and diplomacy remain extremely important. You should try to understand the perspective of the other person and use your judgment to determine whether or not you think it is an honest mistake, uninformed misinformation, or a blatant attempt to mislead. If the information is within your area of expertise and you would be considered the person most likely to have the correct information, you can tactfully correct the situation. If it is out of your base, then you need to work a little harder to correct the misinformation. Do not discount the importance of correcting something that is wrong and doing it in such a way that you do not embarrass others or put them on the defensive.

Don’t Overcomplicate
The mathematics and statistical knowledge required in the fire service does not need to be too complicated or complex. Unfortunately there are many that don’t understand enough of the basics, and this can lead to questioning credibility, which could ultimately affect trust. In today’s world, data drive many decisions. This data must be accurate and believable. If the data is manipulated it must be done so correctly so that it is accurate and beyond question. Statistics, data, and math aren’t considered opinions; they are presented as factual. Once someone takes liberty with this, he opens himself up to questions on many fronts. Don’t make up data and statistics. Get your facts straight and do your research. Review your math and use the resources you have including technology and other individuals that may have a better understanding. Legitimate data and the related statistics are irrefutable. Made up information can get challenged and cause problems in a lot of areas. Be careful what you relay to others and make sure you have back up.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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