In my first job out of school, I was a staff engineer (a.k.a. an efficiency expert) at an HMO. I'd just finished giving a brilliant overview of my analysis showing how medical department staffs could be more productive. But as one of the head nurses got up to leave, I overhead heard her say with visible disgust, "You know, they can lie with statistics."
Sure. Just ask the Chinese government about SARS.
The fact is, we're living on information overload, where almost any kind of survey result or random piece of data can be pulled off the web. And often, it's no better than lying. Without the appropriate context to the numbers, what's getting thrown at us is a lot of information that may seem to make sense. But things get murky pretty quickly if you dig below the surface.
For instance, take the statistics on unemployment claims from the Minnesota Department of Economic Security recently published in the Star Tribune (www.startribune.com, White Collar Crunch, 04/13/03). Since I'm interested in what's going on in the technical community, I immediately checked out the category labeled "Architecture and engineering." According to the report, unemployment claims for that category rose 62% between 2001 and 2002. Between 2002 and 2003, they fell 5%.
Is that sort of good, just bad, or really bad news for engineers in Minnesota? It's impossible to tell without knowing more information, like: How long does the claim period last? What is the baseline number of claims? A figure like 62% can sound awfully high, but might not represent a high number of claims if the base is low to begin with. What percent is architects vs.engineers? How many engineers actually found jobs in that time period? Is this a real inflection point?
In the same article, the state of Minnesota reports that it is, "... sticking by its projection of overall growth in professional and technical categories of 25% between 1998 and 2008, the highest of any classification."
If future job prospects in Minnesota were one criterion, would you send your son or daughter to engineering school based on that statistic? I know I'd want a lot more information first. And the people reporting the numbers should be giving it to us.