The Trouble With Statistics


I have a confession to make, and it’s a bit of an odd one: I love statistics.

It’s odd since I’m a word guy with a phobia of numbers that goes back to being put in pre-algebra instead of algebra in 8th grade (but that’s another story for another time).

Nevertheless I love stats, especially as they relate to pop culture. Even though I didn’t particularly care for James Cameron’s Avatar, earlier this year I found myself checking Box Office Mojo daily to keep track of its North American and international take. I’m fascinated by stories that parse the influence of pop culture and technology into bit-sized morsels for my contemplation. This week I learned that 72% of all American adults have apparently embraced text messaging. Does that statistic really matter? Not too much. But I like knowing it.

But other stats illustrate a potential problem. As a certain old saying about statistics goes, if you torture them long enough, you can make them say seemingly contradictory things.

Take stats for this summer’s box office haul, for example. Depending on how you present the numbers, it was either the best summer for movies ever … or one of the worst in the last few years.

On the positive side, moviegoers plunked down more of their hard-earned dosh at the box office this summer than ever before—$4.35 billion, to be precise, a cool $100 million more than last summer’s previous record.

But that number is significantly inflated by the steep rise in ticket prices due to so many 3-D releases (which typically charge a premium for their extra-dimensional moviegoing experience). As a result, movie fans actually “only” bought 552 million tickets this summer, the lowest total since 2005.

Is the movie glass half-full or half-empty? Both, it turns out, depending on how you’re looking at it.

I think it’s a good reminder (and perhaps a particularly nerdy lesson for a stat-lover like me) of the need to think critically about any statistic we run across. There’s a lot of good research going on out there about how popular culture influences us (and in lots of other areas, too, for that matter). But not all stats are created equal, and we’d do well to remember how easily data can be manipulated.

Now, back to Box Office Mojo …

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

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