In History, Philosophy, Science, Words

Victorian man by the Thames

Despite an overwhelming one per cent of you responding to say I should buy the Suzuki Bandit, I didn’t. Something told me it was a bad idea. I think it might have been the half per cent who asked what I’d like them to say at my funeral. Therein lies an object lesson in statistics: the majority is not always right.

The Victorians had a healthily dim view of statistics – or 57 per cent of them did anyway. Mark Twain is credited with popularising the saying “lies, damned lies and statistics”, although he accredited it to Benjamin Disraeli, who, we can be almost 100 per cent sure, didn’t say it. The notion that statistics can be used to underpin any fallacious argument was put forward by various luminaries of the time, but seems to have originated from the dark, formaldehyde stenched corridors of the medical profession, where statistics were being used to justify all sorts of inhuman experiments, much as Erling Haaland’s goalscoring record is used to justify, well, Erling Haaland.

Today the tables have turned and 75 per cent of people believe that statistics are king, even though we know that 68.6 per cent of statistics are made up (rising to 100 per cent in this blog). Look beyond the digits, analytics and algorithms that dominate our daily lives and you’ll find another dimension, a more human domain – the mystical land of the hunch, where measurements are taken with the senses. The offspring of experience and wisdom, the hunch is a fascinating creature. It’s hard to describe, almost impossible to draw and often prone to ridicule, but if you see one, follow it. It will take you to much more interesting places.

Take Hollywood. How many films can you think of where the hero or heroin wins through because they followed a statistical line of reasoning? OK, Moneyball, but apart from that? Yeah, all right, Rain Man. Any more? No? Good. In 99.9 per cent of all films ever made it’s the hunch coming good that wins our hearts. “Build it and they will come!”

So keep believing in the hunch. I know that’s what they said of Richard III for all those years but don’t let that put you off. Hunches are majestic. Hunches areregal. And sometimes, hunches do become king.

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