Buoy Statistics

Okay, this is going to be another one of those posts where I make up a term for something I’m seeing that annoys me. You’ve been warned.

When I was a little kid, I remember one of the first times I ever saw a buoy in the ocean. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was probably 5 or so, and I thought the buoy was actually somebody’s ball that had floated away. As the day went on, I remember being amazed that it managed to stay so close to the same spot without moving…it was far from shore (at least to a 5 year old) but somehow it never disappeared entirely. I think my Dad must have noticed me looking at it because he teased me about it for a bit, but he finally told me it was actually anchored with a chain I couldn’t see. Life lessons.

I think about that feeling sometimes when I see statistics quoted in articles with little context. It’s always something like “75% of women do x, which is more than men”, and then everyone makes comments about how great/terrible women are for awhile. 5 paragraphs down you find out that 72% of men also do x, meaning all of the previous statements were true, but are a little less meaningful in context. What initially looked like a rather interesting free floating statistic was actually tied to something bigger. It may not stop being interesting or useful, but it certainly changes the presentation a bit. In other words:

Buoy statistic: A statistic that is presented on its own as free-floating, while the context and anchoring data is hidden from initial sight.

I see buoy statistics most often when it comes to group differences. Gender, racial groups, political groups….any time you see a number with what one group does without the number for the other half, I’d get suspicious.

For example, a few years ago, a story broke that the (frequently trolling) Public Policy Polling Group had found that 30% of Republican voters supported bombing the fictional city of Agrabah from the movie Aladdin. This got some people crowing about how dumb Republicans were, but a closer read showed that 36% of Democrats opposed it. Overall, an almost identical number of each party (43% vs 45%) had an opinion about a fictional city. Now this was a poll question designed to get people to say dumb things, and the associated headlines were pure buoy statistics.

Another example was around a Github study from a few years ago that showed that women had a lower acceptance rate of their pull requests if their user name made it clear they were female (71.8% to 62.5%). Some articles ended up reporting that they got far fewer requests accepted than men, but it turns out that men actually got about 64% of their requests accepted. While it was true the drop off was bigger from gender-neutral names (men went from about 68% to about 64%), 62.5% vs 64% is not actually “far fewer”.  (Note: numbers are approximate because, annoyingly, exact numbers were not released)

I’m sure there are other examples, but basically any time you get impressed by a statistic, only to feel a bit of a let down when you hear the context, you’ve hit a buoy statistic. Now, just like with buoys, these statistics are not without any use. One of the keys to this definition is that they are real statistics, just not always as free-floating as you first perceive them. Frequently they are actually the mark of something legitimately interesting, but you have to know how to take them. Context does not erase usefulness, but it can make it harder to jump to conclusions.

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