Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

22 Ways to Misunderstand a Number

Written by: on October 28, 2021

In “How to Read Numbers,” by Tom Chivers and David Chivers, the reader is presented with twenty-two common mistakes both professionals and lay persons make when using and/or reading statistics of one kind or another. The authors’ stated goal is similar to that of Kahneman—to improve the reader’s quality of thinking and decision making. Chivers and Chivers, however, have narrower focus than Kahneman. Their specific focal point is to help readers better “…understand how numbers are made, how they’re used and how they can go wrong, because otherwise we’ll make bad decisions, as individuals and as a society.”[1]

Following a brief introduction, the authors give one chapter to each error to which a writer or reader is prone when working with or reading statistics. In their conclusion, they make clear that while this is a book about statistics (which is a subcategory under the classification of sociology), they also indicate their desire that this book be used as a style manual for how to carefully and responsibly write about and use statistics and numbers. They are also using this book to launch an on-line campaign on how to read numbers. These additional components convey the authors’ sense of wider purpose and mission in writing this book. They are not content with just having written this book; they want to start a movement that leads to a wider practice of improving how numbers and statistics are understood and utilized in our societies—for the betterment of our societies. This is a fascinating and worthy mission, given the landscapes of information distortion we all must navigate each day.

As I inspectionally read this book, I was reminded of my master’s level class on statistics and research design. I’ve been grateful for that background ever since as I’ve read various articles on a wide variety of topics and have seen how numbers and statistics are used and abused. It left me feeling grateful for Chivers and Chivers commitment to make this knowledge accessible to a wide range of writers and readers.

They have reinvigorated my interest in this subject and its practical applications to my everyday conversations with family members, friends, and colleagues. Their approach has given me some helpful ways to talk about the challenges of statistics in more approachable language and unlocked some of the paralysis I have felt to engage this topic. Their book has also left me more attuned to my NPO project reading and refreshed my capacity to more carefully attend to the numbers and statistics that show up there—especially as I read assessments on the effectiveness of various approaches to social cohesion and peace-building.

The challenges of establishing causality (Chapter 8) and discerning variables that may confound the linking of two other issues (Chapter 7) frequently show up in my NPO project reading. I especially appreciated the authors’ caution to investigate whether or not a third variable may be impacting two other factors that seem to be causally related. This caution reminded me of blind spots in our thinking and decision-making processes outlined by Kahneman. For example, some of my research reading that summarized several studies indicated a positive link between the value of hospitality and the degree of social cohesion exhibited in a diverse community. I find that to be a fascinating connection, but is it a causal connection? After reading Chivers and Chivers, I want to revisit that research to look more carefully at the research methodology underlying the studies and their conclusions. Chivers and Chivers’ comments on this have left me curious to discover if there is a confounding factor also present that influences the relationship between the value of hospitality and the experience of social cohesion in a diverse community.

[1] Chivers, Tom, and David Chivers. 2021. How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 3.


About the Author

Elmarie Parker

18 responses to “22 Ways to Misunderstand a Number”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    This book turned out to be applicable for your own research, which is always a fortuitous occurrence. I also thought the conclusion of the book was insightful when they compared the use of statistics to a style guide; a sort of standard that everyone can hold their own writing and research to. Have you revisited your own methodology and discovered new ways to improve it? Good luck with your project moving forward.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Troy, for your comment and encouragement. Regarding adjustments to my own research, I think this will become especially relevant as I continue with my NPO reading. A key practice I want to take up is more consistently and carefully reviewing the methodology utilized in any research papers I’m reading in order to better understand how the researchers arrived at their numerical/statistical conclusions. Chivers and Chivers guide will help me to more effectively unpack and evaluate those conclusions–at least that is my hope.

  2. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Just want to see if I am still blocked.

  3. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, just as you did, I found this book helpful (i.e. challenging) regarding my research for the NPO. It sounds like you are going to keep this book in an accessible place as your research continues. I look forward to seeing what you produce in your project as our staff has been focusing on hospitality and what that means in a post-COVID, post-Christendom world.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Indeed, Roy, this book will remain part of my active toolkit going forward :). I’d love to hear more about what you and your staff are working on regarding hospitality in a post-covid, post Christendom world! I also really appreciated your reply last week to my question/curiosity about how you are benchmarking/measuring success–the focus on next steps taken is so practical and substantial.

  4. Great summary and insight Elmarie! I’m curious what you’ve discovered thus far in terms of correlation between hospitality and cohesion within diverse communities?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Michael, for your question. So far in my literature review, it appears the correlation between hospitality and cohesion in diverse communities is tied really practical and sustained expressions of hospitality. Opening up economic pathways for newcomers appears to be a central hospitality practice that is correlated to greater social cohesion in diverse communities (meaning those who are more established in the community are an active part of helping new comers get started–coaching, accompanying them through bureaucratic processes, etc.). This insight has been really significant for how I’m thinking about my NPO’s development. I want to further investigate this connection, taking into account insights from this book.

  5. mm Eric Basye says:

    Well said. I love the connection and application you are making to your NPO and research. I also enjoyed this book… what a fascinating (and enlightening) way to think about numbers!

  6. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Thank you for sharing a bit more about your NPO and how this book caused you to think about the research you are doing a bit differently. I felt similarly in the direct application to my NPO. I would also think it would be interesting given your context if the research you have done thus far is from samples across different cultures are regions of the world or if they tend to be honed in on a particular area. It would seem certain cultures have a more natural emphasis on the importance of hospitality than others.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Kayli. Thank you for your comment and curiosity. It is true, in my experience, that some cultures have a more active and expansive understanding and practice of hospitality than others. Interestingly enough, the research I’ve discovered on this connection so far comes out of Europe and Great Britain as they grapple with social cohesion fractures in the midst of a growing percentage of their population coming from other parts of the world with different religious traditions and other differences in cultural practices. The local communities in Europe/Great Britain who are more successfully navigating this social cohesion challenge are those who are choosing to engage new comers in practical, respectful ways…especially around entrance into the economic entrepreneurial life blood of the community.

  7. mm Andy Hale says:

    I think my question is similar to what others have pitched, which is how do statistics affect your NPO? Also, I’d love to learn more about your NPO in general.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Andy. Statistics and numbers are showing up in the literature review I’m doing regarding social cohesion and also ‘success’ measurements/benchmarks of peace-building/peace-making processes. It’s made me aware that at some point, as my NPO moves from idea to action, I will need to consider how I approach evaluation criteria. Right now I’m only at the abstract place with considering evaluation criteria–a recognition that I will need to include that, but not yet at all clear on what that will look like. I’d love to set up a virtual coffee/tea time to share about our respective NPOs. I’m here in the States until Nov. 11. On Nov. 12 I head back to Lebanon, which just means we’ll have a wider time zone gap to work with. Let’s connect by email to find a day/time that works for both of us.

  8. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Excellent review, El-Marie!! Like you, the subjects of causality and the possibility of a third variable resonate very deeply with me as I work on my NPO. I am hoping “How to Read Numbers” will equip us all to truly discover the root causes of our NPOs and thus help in resolving these important challenges for our various contexts.

  9. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    OK…Now I am commenting for real 🙂
    Counfounders and Causality are really closely linked. I too found these interesting. I actually wrote a note to go back to Kahneman to read about Causality lol. Chivers’ argue that causality is really difficult to prove. It seems Kahneman would agree. Kahneman writes, “You are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behavior than by hearing surprising facts about people in general.” How might you apply this truth to your own processing of the NPO? How might that impact your approach to hospitality’s link to social cohesion? How might stereotypes be a subconscious part of the causal interpretation? How does human “need to know cause” drive the anxious system?
    Thank you for your thoughtful application of reading to your work! You challenge me to improve my processing!

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Nicole. Thank you for your comment and questions–thought provoking as always :). Let me start with this initial response, as I think so much of what you raise will only be discovered and learned along the way:
      1. I appreciate you sharing this quote from Kahneman: “You are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behavior than by hearing surprising facts about people in general.” How might you apply this truth to your own processing of the NPO? What this means to me right now in relation to my NPO is that I will need to pay close attention to my own ‘ahas’ (points of surprise) along the way as I listen to my stakeholders’ input during my design workshop and during 1-1 conversations. Deep and active listening, self awareness, and testing assumptions seem to me the central practices needed in order to evaluate potential casual relationships. I hope this will be helpful to how I approach further exploring the link between hospitality and social cohesion.
      2. How might stereotypes be a subconscious part of the causal interpretation? I do think that the assumptions or stereotypes we make about what hospitality is and isn’t impacts this conversation in a significant way. What I’ve learned thus far is that the typical way in which hospitality is used in the US church context with which I am most familiar is very different from how social cohesion researchers are using this term. So, clarifying meaning will be really important, as will acknowledging the breadth of ways in which individuals, communities, and cultures understand and practice hospitality.
      3. How does human “need to know cause” drive the anxious system? What immediately came to my mind are the experiences we encountered 16 years ago or so when we were in a period of ministry transition. So many people expressed their anxiety on our behalf for our future. I finally reached the point of thanking them for their anxiety on our behalf and assuring them that we have experienced the reality of God’s trustworthiness during times of transition again and again and that this gave us a good measure of peace as we explored different possibilities, listened, and further developed our skills and leadership capacities. It was a bit humorous to see their response of surprise when I acknowledged the anxiety they were feeling about our situation. And, gratifying that in acknowledging their anxiety and differentiating their response from my own experience that it changed the trajectory of the conversation to be able to talk more deeply about what different seasons of transition had held for both of us and the invitations in those seasons to lean-in further into the reality of who God is. So…when I think about anxiety around the need to know ’cause’, I’m reminded that it is OK to just be in the tension of different factors influencing each other and to seek to understand those interactive elements the best that I can. Sometimes along the way ’cause’ is discovered. More often, the mystery of complexity remains present.

      • mm Nicole Richardson says:

        Elmarie, I completely agree that it is “along the way” that we gain more wisdom and understanding. I pray you (and I) remain curious and open to what God wants to show. You talk about “Aha’s”…I really appreciate that intentional awareness that allows one to see the aha’s. I know for myself that often the aha’s are the new things I see/become aware of…these are usually less difficult to accept. It is the “oh crap’s” that are more difficult for me, because these are the things that are more convicting of where I was blind in such a missing the mark kind of way. Do you have those?
        I like your thoughts about how to approach the differences in word use of hospitality. I’d be very interested to hear what you learn about this. I do think here in North America it is understood in a very superficial way…it’s all about making a good impression, the pretty table and meal, and usually offered to those we are comfortable with. It’s all very safe here…..safe for the one offering hospitality. I think Jesus alters the framework of hospitality by who he eats with, and how he challenges the norms ( or heuristics lol) of hospitality.
        Wow I think you handled others anxiety well…naming if for them is great! I appreciate your wisdom in being at peace with the tension of the unknown. Those around us are not always good with that. People needing to know cause is about control I think…and in the midst of chaos the need to control seems more “important”….but that is just a guess on my part.

  10. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Great title! I am really intrigued by the questions you are asking yourself. Particularly, around the idea of hospitality. I have not looked into it much but in discussing my project with Karen we have explored that issue as well. I am wondering how much culture plays in that issue? Even now, as the governor the state is encouraging vaccine cards for public venues, I wonder if it will impact the church community to be more hospitable in their homes? Or will it be an opportunity to shun people who are or are not vaccinated? Then of course there is the “mandate” from the Word of God that says a characteristic of leadership is hospitality? You have gotten me thinking.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Denise, for sharing what ruminations my post has spurred in you…very interesting. I’ll look forward to hearing where you are led as you explore this thread.

      Regarding the culture connection to hospitality, Kayli posed a similar wondering. Take a look at my reply to her and let me know if you’d like to talk further :).

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