Statistics are neither Lies nor Damned Lies!

Mark Twain photo

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Imagine the news headlines that today’s media might run in covering this quote popularized by Mark Twain, (originally attributed to Benjamin Disraeli.)

  • “Twain Cleverly Skewers the Twisting of Statistics”
  • “Twain Calls Statistics the Worst of All Lies”
  • “Man Hiding Behind False Name Claims Some Lies are not Lies”
  • “Twain Declining Mentally: Makes Logically Inconsistent Statement”

We’re all familiar with how statistics can be interpreted in various ways to make very different claims. We’re also familiar with how news headlines can be written to generate the most interest, or may indicate a bias or (gasp!) even an agenda by the author or publisher. I was reminded of this recently when looking at a series of headlines from Google News about Apple’s performance in the American Customer Satisfaction Index for Personal Computers.

Google News Headlines

Notice how the four headlines happen to be in order from negative to positive toward Apple. The first headline includes only the negative aspect of Apple’s performance in the survey. The middle two have some positive and some negative aspects. And the last headline uses only a positive aspect of Apple’s performance.

Looking at the Numbers

Compare the headlines above to the ACSI scores for this year. Apple scored 84 out of 100. Dell scored 75. Each of the other vendors in the study, including the “All Others” category, scored 74. It is fair to say that Apple enjoys a significant lead over all competitors.

Continuing a more Apple-positive take on the results, here are a few more statements that are also be true:

  • “Apple leads in customer satisfaction survey for sixth straight year”
  • “Apple scores second highest customer satisfaction rating ever for a top PC vendor”

    (The highest score ever was Apple’s score from the previous year, which was one point higher.)

  • “Apple’s lead in customer satisfaction is the second largest out of any industry in the ACSI”

    (Only Southwest Airlines has a bigger advantage over its closest rival.)

No News Is…Not Very Interesting

Saying that Apple leads in a customer satisfaction survey isn’t really compelling news; we all expect Apple to do well in customer satisfaction, (or at least better than PC manufacturers.) Highlighting some negative aspect of Apple’s performance in this survey is something that is more likely to surprise and intrigue us enough to click on the link and read the story.

I like how Google News groups news stories and provides multiple options for reading about a topic. Unfortunately, by putting competing news story headlines directly next to one another, they’re creating a situation where there’s incentive for every headline to be dramatized to get readers’ clicks. This has occurred on newspaper and magazine covers for some time, but the stories inside the didn’t always have the same incentive.

Other Interesting Stories from the Study

Looking at the other end of this customer satisfaction survey, here are a couple of interesting twists that could be taken from the data:

  • Compaq had the largest gain from the previous year
  • After a 10 year run with the lowest customer satisfaction rating of any major PC vendor, Compaq managed to reach the lofty status of tying for last place with two other vendors and the “All Others” group.

Frankly, the thing that I found most interesting about Compaq in this survey is that it’s still treated as a “major PC vendor” and hasn’t just been lumped in with HP.

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