Pass the Olives

A Jumble of Opinions on Living, Thinking, Reading, and Making Things

Numbers, Data, Stats, and Other Nitpickables

Strong Neighborhoods is not numbers, data, stats, and other nitpickables heaven. Just stating that upfront. I do my best but Strong Neighborhoods is about self-organizing communities, maintaining equality, and controlling our own environments. I use numbers to compare apples to oranges, income to outgo, and the possibilities to the probably impossible. Numbers are so tricky they are themselves a whole field of study. One fit for top-notch research librarians and physicists of any kind. In other words, numbers are a whole different subject at which I am not adept.*

Graphic of Color Symbols

Sources of Numbers, Data, Stats

When I can find reliable numbers, data, stats, and other nitpickable claims, I quote them and give my sources. I’ve spent enough time in academic circles to find sources that are considered reliable, professional, and unbiased. I favor research centers, professional publications, and Census figures. For Census figures, I often use third-party sources because they are easier to understand without a graduate degree in statistics and coding or a Boolean search a paragraph long. The Pew Research Center is a favorite source because it studies the social and economic areas related to housing and asks the right questions. Statista, Investopedia, the Poynter Institute’s Politifact, and others as I come across them.

I trust Wikipedia. Not many people will admit that but you know that “everyone” does or it wouldn’t be growing by leaps and bounds. And all those people who don’t trust it wouldn’t be going around saying so — they would just ignore its existence.  I trust Wikipedia so much I make a monthly micro-donation of $5 automatically deposited on the first of the month.

Wikipedia is the contemporary version of the Almanac, the book that used to be on every writer’s desk with all the names and numbers from the last year. It was the most accessible source for grain prices, the average height of 10-year-olds, the names of all the Beatles, the dates of all the wars, and the populations of micro-islands. Everything you were likely to ask about in the last two centuries all in one place in small print and many languages. All facts as of December of the previous year. No updates.

But Wikipedia entries are updated thousands of times every third second. If Wikipedia was an Almanac, the desk that held it would be too large for my office, even for my whole city block.**

Opinions and Corrections

Estimates, assumptions, and informed opinions I label as such. I attempt not to record an opinion unless it is in my opinion informed. I post corrections when they are called to my attention. (It’s much less embarrassing if you tell me about them than if they are allowed to just proliferate around the world in social media.)

Rounding Numbers

I tend to round numbers, particularly of $$$. Since Strong Neighborhoods is not a data hound, it rarely means anything to my readers if I replace $348,761.76 with ~$350,000. The rounded numbers are easier to remember. The little squiggly called a tilde, “~”, appears quite often. It means approximately, around, or about. In addition to being easier to type and read, rounded numbers are actually more truthful than precise numbers pretend to be. Anyone who tells you there are exactly 9,674,823,179,652 stars in the sky is hardly likely to be able to argue about it. ~10,000,000,000,000 is close enough to convey “an enormous number.”

Switchplate Dingbat

*For an expert analysis of all the numbers that control our lives and how little anyone knows about them, see Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. Subtitle: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. An unlikely contender for the NYTimes Bestseller List and Best Book of the Year, it actually achieved both. It’s very funny as well. It is math as you wish it had been.

** But that said the current edition of the 2121 World Almanac at 1.37 lbs. and 1008 pages is out and costs less than a monthly fee for internet access. It’s the Sears Catalogue of things that can be counted or measured.