Organisers have more data — and the tools to analyse and share them — than ever before. So why is the truth so hard to pin down?
When you look at trade show numbers, purportedly the result of good data collection and demographic analysis, do you believe them?
The bigger the event the more the fact blitzed the figures, the bigger the numerical claims supposedly persuading exhibitors to take part. Numbers tell little and event calculus is always a little dubious. In short, event figures are statistical bullshit – the casual slinging around of numbers not because they are true, or false, but to sell a message. Some marketing campaigns are characterised by a relentless statistical crossfire. Can any event figures be true?
The answer, in general terms, is yes – but they can be broadly misleading at the same time. Not only can figures be supportive but they can also be confusing.
The Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published an essay the title of which was “On Bullshit”. Frankfurt was on a quest to understand the meaning of bullshit — what was it, how did it differ from lies, and why was there so much of it about?
He concluded that the difference between the liar and the bullshitter was that the liar cared about the truth — cared so much that he wanted to obscure it — while the bullshitter did not. The bullshitter cared little if the statements he used were true or not. They just pick them out, or make them up, to suit their purpose.
Event bullshit is a special case of bullshit in general, and it appears to be on the rise.
This is partly because social media — a natural vector for statements made purely for effect — are also on the rise. On Instagram and Twitter attention-grabbing information, surprising headlines and figures that resonate with how we already see the world is used with little care to the consequence. Unfortunately, very few claims are eye-catching, surprising or emotionally resonant because they are true and fair. Statistical bullshit spreads easily these days; all it takes is a click.
A good example is the use of statistics by Donald Trump. Trump has been accused of using bogus statistics and when challenged on this fact he replied, “Am I gonna check every statistic?” This is bullshittter in full effect, they don’t care whether the things they say reflects reality correctly.
While much of the evident event bullshit is careless, it can also be finely crafted. “The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves a certain inner strain,” wrote Harry Frankfurt but, nevertheless, the bullshit produced by marketing department and the PR industry can be meticulous. They may not much care about the truth but they do care about being caught lying.
Sometimes it’s easier to make the research produce the number you want. In effect, it’s not “What is the truth?” that’s important but “What can I say without being shown up as a liar?” As Harry Frankfurt wrote, the bullshitter “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”
All this is finely wrought bullshit — a series of ever-shifting claims that can be easily repeated but are difficult to unpick. It’s not enough to show how many people attended an event, something that is essential for good event organisation but inconvenient for some organisers.
It’s not that organisers spin things their way, of course they do, that’s event marketing. It’s that organisers have grown so used to misusing numbers they have forgotten that used properly, they are tools.
It’s considered that event marketing has to be “captivating”. But, perhaps, show numbers should have the smallest possible amount of editorial colour and the driest of all reading. This seems absurdly ill-suited to the modern world. But there is a middle ground between the bullshitter, who pays no attention to the truth, and those who think that the truth must be presented without adornment.
Cynicism has set in about event figures. Many treat figures not as the foundation of event promotion but as decoration — “spray-on evidence” is the phrase used by many.
Numbers, collected correctly come in handy. That shouldn’t be a problem, because it has never been easier to gather and analyse event statistics. The gold standard of statistical evidence is randomised controlled research because using randomly chosen groups protects against biased or optimistic interpretations.
More and more, online and mobile surveys are being used to collect event statistics. However, these surveys are often completed during a time convenient for the respondent, but are often in the midst of other distractions such as texting, emailing, video streaming, web surfing, social sharing, and can create inaccurate and misleading analysis. Face-to-face interviews are in-the-moment, free from technological distractions, provide a randomized data collection method as well as avoid false information during screening questions.
But whatever figures you collect and however you collect them, understanding statistics is a tremendous help. There is an old saying about “lies, damned lies and statistics”. It has to be pointed out that while it’s easy to lie with statistics, it’s even easier to lie without them.
Perhaps the lies aren’t the enemy. Lies can be refuted; liars can be exposed. But bullshit? Bullshit is a stickier problem. Bullshit undermines the notion that the truth matters. As Harry Frankfurt himself said, the bullshitter “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and opposes himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”