Monday, June 6, 2011

How to recognize a fictitious statistic

Recently a Google search led me to this startling statement on page 109 of Brian Tracy’s 2011 book No Excuses!: The Power of Self Discipline:

“According to the book of lists, 54 percent of adults rate the fear of public speaking ahead of the fear of death.”

The same statement also appeared (minus that second the) on page 42 of his 2008 book, Speak to Win: How to Present with Power in Any Situation.

Rex Stout once said that:

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.”

Mr. Tracy’s statement is the second kind of statistic. The Book of Lists from 1977 really doesn’t have anything on page 469 to support that quote. The biggest percent shown is 41%.

How can you recognize a fictitious statistic?

First, it’s very impressive, but doesn’t really add up. It looks like the mythical ManBearPig shown above and featured in an episode of South Park. He was half man, half bear, and half pig, and therefore 50% too much.

Second, when you look for where it might have come from there’s almost no written history behind it. The only other book that mentions that 54 percent is Daryl D. Green’s Awakening the Talents Within: A Guide for the Next Generation of Leaders (200) which says more vaguely that:

“According to one survey, 54 percent of people rank fear of public speaking higher than fear of death.”

The ManBearPig graphic was cobbled together from images of a Brown Bear and background, the head of a Neaderthal Man and clip art of a Pig.

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