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

Truth, Misinformation, and A Wider Perspective of Numbers in the Public Eye

Written by: on October 28, 2021

The last year and a half have put a very real spotlight on the use of numbers in the public forum like none other that I can remember. To the point that most people have no idea what the truth is actually, lies or misinformation. Tom Chivers and David Chivers have combined their perspective expertise, as science writer and assistant professor of economics respectively, to create an easy to read, often humorous look at those numbers, why they are that way and how to pull back from the emotion they insight to gain a rational perspective. How to Read Numbers is a statistical guide to the numbers in the news, that gives non-statistical individuals the tools necessary to look deeper, what questions to ask before responding, and just possibly creating a space for dialogue in our very polarize world today.
The authors have managed to thoroughly cover the pros, cons, conditions of collecting numbers for communicating with the public. I found their honest look at the possible unintentional manipulation of numbers fascinating. Particularly in terms of the demands of jobs that require production of numbers to sustain those places of employment. That the demands of media drive their content search out the latest and most sensational headlines, creating a blind spot to the larger picture and unintentional bias. This is paired with the scientists need to publish novel, breakout results that may or may not be significant. But that they can catch the attention of the public with profound hope of an improved future. I was particularly unnerved with the reference to the number of studies that are shelved because they disprove an earlier study or provide less than exciting results. This symbiotic relationship is further complicated by when politicians are thrown into the mix. Chivers and Chivers pointed out the general public are not the only ones who do not understand the numbers. That both media writers and politicians can easily misinterpret information that they have received and later pass on to the public.
This has certainly been true during the Covid-19 situation. There has been so much focus on the new and novel that any information about earlier studies on treatments of similar illnesses have been shoved to the back of the shelf. Personally, I have puzzled why there has been so little discussion around how people can build their immune system. But the demand for novelty all but ignored all previous learned truths. Then there is also the financial aspect that comes to play. If people can actually build their immune systems to fight a disease, there is no longer a need for expensive new treatments.
For me this book shown a light of revelation to the current polarization we now experience. The social media and memes of every kind seem to just further disseminate half-truths. And as my dad use to say there is no such thing as a half-truth. We have seen the use of small sample sizes, statistical significance, the emergence of confounders and the misappropriation of causality on all sides. The one example that stands out to me recently was the tragic passing of Collin Powell. It just depended on which news source what a person heard. There was a significant amount of cherry picking depending on a person’s source. Some sources focused on that he apparently passed as a result of complications due to Covid-19. Another source stated that he had been full vaccinated and died of Covid-19 complications. Yet if we look closer, he in fact had been battling a blood cancer. Yes, he was fully vaccinated and tested positive to Covid-19 but is that really the lead? What if we just focused on the great contribution he made to our country and mourn with his family?
This book challenged me to look at my stakeholders for my workshop more closely. To be sure that is wide enough. Yet at the same time being aware of distractors in the form of confounders and predetermined biases. I also want to be sure to be open to questions and assumptions that I have not taught possible. I have not pinned these down yet, but I am certainly more conscience of the possible contaminates.

About the Author


Denise Johnson

Special Education teacher K-12, School Counselor K-12, Overseas field worker in Poland,

6 responses to “Truth, Misinformation, and A Wider Perspective of Numbers in the Public Eye”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Denise, thanks for relating the bias issue to the Covid-19 “era.” It seemed like we got a different report, backed by statistics, every day. The encouragement to “follow the science” proved to be an ever-changing target. You reference bias a number of times and it makes me wonder how anyone can consistently move beyond their biases. I had a teacher in school who said, “No one is objective.” I believe that’s a true statement, I just wonder how to at least have the intent of objectivity rather than push for my own biases. You provoked some good thoughts in this post.

  2. mm Eric Basye says:

    Denise, great post. I appreciated your referring to the Chivers’ book as a statistical guide. I would agree 100% I also appreciate your humility and willingness to name and own your own assumptions, as those are made known to you. I would say that this, in my opinion, is a mark of godly leadership. Press on.

  3. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Denise, I am grateful you brought up the coverage of Collin Powell’s passing as it was something I was also a bit surprised by. For a man that contributed so much over the years, it saddened me that his death was used on both sides of the aisle for differing Covid narratives. I appreciate you pointing out the need to look at stakeholders differently during your NPO process. I completed my workshop this week and was surprised by what new ideas and insights emerged from a few new voices that were invited to the table that will likely make a significant impact on the end result.

  4. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Denise thank you for your thoughtful connections between the book and the kerfuffle over Covid-19. Humans have access to so much information but it is much safer to stay in ones own echo chamber. You clearly are internalizing the reading by choosing to approach your research by moving out of your echo chamber.
    What causes you anxiety as you consider being open to new questions and assumptions?

  5. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Insightful post, Denise. Even with news reporting that isn’t heavy on the statistics and data, like your example of the death of Colin Powell, we need to be wary of how the subject is being presented. Human bias can never be eliminated but objectivity is to remain always the goal. It just seems that the news reporting in our country has become more biased, hasn’t it? This book is so timely and appropriate right now.

  6. Elmarie Parker says:

    Thank you, Denise, for your thoughtful engagement with Chivers and Chivers. Like others, I appreciate the connections you made to the events of our day and time. I also really appreciated the questions this book raised for how you will work differently with your stakeholders and NPO. The dynamics you named are helpful to me as I prepare for my design workshop on Friday. Thank you.

    I’m also very interested to hear more from you on how this book may help to create “a space for dialogue in our very polarize world today.” As you experiment with applying Chivers and Chivers insights to this challenge, please share what you experience and learn!

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