Know Your Sources

I received an email earlier this week from Jim Geurts titled 13 Stats to Convince Your Boss to Invest in Mobile in 2013. It was a great read – I’d highly encourage you to spend a few minutes with it. A sampling: 25.85% of all emails are opened on mobile phones, and 10.16% are opened on tablets.

The content was great. But what I appreciated even more were the sources. (The stat above comes from Knotice).

In the Digital Age, facts can lose context easily. And, with an ever-increasing supply of “fact,” there is danger in Googling for answers. The numbers that seem too good to be true? They can be just that.

If a number is important, follow it to its source. A recent non-marketing example drives the point home as clearly as any I’ve seen. It comes from an article in this month’s Atlantic titled How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?:

The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations… In other words, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment.

It’s not a marketing example, but the author’s point can – and must – be applied to anyone seeking truth online these days: “Most people assume these numbers are based on large, well-conducted studies… but they are not.”

Know your numbers. But, as importantly, know your sources.

Interested in more stuff I find interesting? Follow me @casey_flanagan on Twitter.

What To Learn From Being Wrong

I’ve recently enrolled in an online class with Dan Ariely – A Beginner’s Guide To Irrational Behavior. I am irrationally excited.

In one of the first lectures, he shared two Leaning Towers of Pisa. Take a look at the images and answer the simple question: Does one tower tilt more to the right?

(I’ll wait.)

The answer is no. It’s the same image. I know because I copy and pasted it. But most everybody guesses the one one the right. You’ve likely seen this – or another – visual illusion before. Entire websites are dedicated to visual illusions. People love them – despite constantly getting them wrong. And the constantly getting them wrong is a really big point.

We get them wrong because context tricks our brain (we don’t just see with our eyes). We laugh about it. We marvel at it. And then we forget that context permeates every single facet of our lives. While it may not be visual – like our leaning towers – context is responsible for an uncounted number of unnoticed illusions. These affect your perception on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis.

To make better decisions, be aware that context is there. Whether you can see it or not.

Interested in more stuff I find interesting? Follow me @casey_flanagan on Twitter.

Putting Context In Context

Numbers may not lie. But, without context, they don’t tell the truth.

Take the recent example of Google’s Flu Tracker which, this flu season, estimated the epidemic to be twice as widespread as it actually was. What happened? The Tracker was looking at the numbers.

According to The New York Times, the Flu Tracker estimates for number of people in the U.S. with the flu are derived from “people’s location + flu-related search queries on Google + some really smart algorithms.” But media coverage + social buzz accelerated the queries. One unaccounted for variable – the context – changing another sends the entire equation out of whack.

The lesson: If it can happen to Google, it can happen to you.

For the most accurate read on your numbers, don’t just look at the numbers.

Interested in more stuff I find interesting? Follow me @casey_flanagan on Twitter.