How To Lie With Statistics

A self taken shot of the Ambassador bridge on ...

Ambassador bridge on the Canadian/American border. Taken from the Canadian side of the border (Windsor) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  I am beginning to sound like a broken record–but again I present to you my weekly newspaper column hot off the computer. If you are wondering, the Windsor I am talking about is in Ontario, Canada, right across the border from Detroit, Michigan. I live in a small town about 30 miles away or since I am Canadian, 50 kilometers away.  Toronto as most people now know, is under siege by Mayor Tom Ford, who refuses to give up the ghost.       

So who said: Laughter is the best medicine? Seems we do not know. One answer from Google was: “It is an old proverb”. Well, I could have told you that. So I continued my in-depth research and Ed from Yahoo Answers said: “The first one to coin this expression is unknown, but Harry Ward Beecher said “Mirth is God’s best medicine,” so the quote was probably “spun off that.” And you have to admit that some of the things God is given credit for creating are pretty funny (noses, ears that stick out {by the way thank you God for blessing me with just one ear that sticks out}, kangaroos, and mayors of big cities who refuse to take a hint.) My research ended there as there were over 200,000 answers and most of them were psychological in nature—and who wants to go there?

            Anyway, this whole laughter thing is just a prelude to my book review of the book “Stats Canada”, which sounds pretty dry at first glance—but wait—the subtitle says it all: “Satire on a National Scale”—so this is apparently not a dry document put out by the Feds, unless of course they are now hiring people with a sense of humour who are into counting the number of times the average Canadian says they are sorry. It is over 45,000 times a day in case you are interested. The real authors are a team of three and their names are Andrew Bondy, Ron Bostelaar, and Julie Davidovich. Bondy hales from Windsor and got a degree from my alma mater (U of Windsor – who says this institution of higher learning does not put out great humourists—Andy and I went there). Bostelaar admits to being from two towns in Ontario “that are not Toronto” and received the “lowest grades of his university career in statistics (hence this book); and Davidovich is proudly from Toronto but for some reason moved to Los Angeles as she “gravitates to smoggy atmospheres with dense, soupy air” because she “owns zero pairs of snow boots and would like to keep it that way.”

            So just being introduced to the authors paves the way for jocularity and hilarity and already we have not gotten as far as chapter one. (Yes, I wanted to use a word other than gotten, but it just seemed to fit.) The Introduction (which, just in case you were wondering is also not the first chapter) includes such interesting statistics as the fact that 30% of grade five students are not aware that New Brunswick is in Canada, which seemed to prove to the authors that the province is little more than a footnote; the statisticians only ordered pizza on Tuesdays; and only 15% of their findings came from Wikipedia. They also included this sentence: “Si vous êtes en mesure de lire ceci, s’il vous plait fermer le livre. Pas de Franchies authorises” which translated is anti-French so I will not translate as part of my last name is French, though I did not do the subject proud in high school (one teacher told me he would pass me if I promised not to take French in grade 13—I promised and then got pretty darn good marks in grade 13 once I dropped biology.)

            Anyway, back to the subject at hand—making fun of Canada and all things Canadian.  I am only allowing this book to do so because it is by two Canadians and an expatriate (who I believe only left because her calves were too big for boots). If anyone else makes fun of my home and native land, all bets and gloves are off.

            This being the last week of November, I felt that we all needed a few laughs, so this is my contribution to some pre-Christmas mirth and merriment. What follows are a few of the illustrious authors’ findings based on stats provided to remove you from eighteen dollars of your hard-earned money:

1. 79% of Canadians just mouth the words during the French part of the national anthem.

2. Some of the top Canadian pastimes include: cooking bacon; eating bacon; practicing loon calls; reading old copies of HELLO! Canada at the salon; not complaining; holding doors open; tobogganing (drunk); tobogganing (sober); waiting for tea to steep; being polite and courteous; counting Canadian Tire money; filling up the beer fridge; opening the cottage; picking fights with other parents in the stands during house league hockey games.

3. Canada’s highest rated TV show is “The Weather”.

4. Four out of five Canadians spend 7 hours a day commenting on the weather.

5. Toronto experiences an average of 28 smug alert days annually (Rob Ford has single-handedly brought that statistic down by at least 20.)

Topographic and bathymetric map of the Great Lakes

Map of the Great Lakes (Photo credit: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

And last but not least:

6. 3 out of the 5 great lakes are just okay lakes.

*How To Lie With Statistics is the only book I remember reading at university and it was from a first year introductory psychology course. And I was there for six years! Explains a lot, I know.

Published in: on November 25, 2013 at 1:39 pm  Comments (43)  
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Ideas and What To Do With Them

Tomato Juice in a glas, decorated with tomato ...

Tomato Juice in a glass, decorated with tomato slice and sprig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is my weekly column–now you will know what I was busy doing on Saturday. There is some local lore here–Richard Scarsbrook is from Toronto now; the Workshop was held in my hometown of Kingsville;  Coopers Hawk is a Winery just a few miles away; the Mettawas is a local restaurant in our refurbished train station, and Merli’s is a quaint eatery just down the street from the library:

            A gathering of like-minded people met last Saturday to form a community for a day. A community we all recognized—creative people assembled to learn something new, to gain inspiration, and to add to our body of knowledge. We attended a Short Story Writing Workshop led by a local boy “made good” author Richard Scarsbrook, originally from Olinda. He opened the workshop with these words: “I want you to walk away with two things today: ideas, and what to do with them.”

            Before the workshop I wrote a few articles about it for the paper, and described Richard as dynamic—but only because I had gleaned the information second-hand. On Saturday I experienced the truth of the word dynamic: energetic, active, lively, vibrant, and full of life. All those words described our leader for the day, who took his cue from us in how he structured the workshop. He had a handout that he used for part of the day, but abandoned it somewhat in the afternoon after hearing what we wanted to concentrate on.

            The venue was provided by the Essex County Library Board. We used the activity room in the beautiful Kingsville Library as our “classroom”. Organized by volunteers for “Wine, Writers and Words”—it was in this volunteer’s eyes an unmitigated success. Personally I loved every minute of it—from the workshop itself to the lunch at the Mettawas Restaurant, a wine tasting put on by the affable and knowledgeable owner of Coopers Hawk Vineyard, Tom O’ Brien to an open mike session followed by the fellowship at Merli’s just down the street. It was a full day of my favourite things: writing, reading, eating, conversation, and a little wine.

            Admittedly, I have been writing this column for years so I must try and come  up with new ideas on a weekly basis—but a workshop of this sort really helps the creative juices run afresh. One of the exercises Richard provided us with was the prompts provided by  six words that he said were guaranteed to get us writing. And right he was. Apparently the words he chose are psychologically proven to get our minds in gear and our fingers working. I was surprised how each of the words brought up strong memories. The first word was childhood, which evoked in me a memory that has obviously been lurking in the background for a long time. The subject is kind of quirky, the memory not life changing, yet there it was. I will give you a taste of what the word evoked during the workshop:

            “The whole family was invited. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Cousins. And of course mom and dad and my brothers and sister. Even Tippy, our dog, was excited.

            We had set up the dining room table in the living room. It was joined by sundry and other tables to make it long enough to seat twenty-two people.

            I was in charge of setting the table, a job I enjoyed even as a kid. Lining up the silverware just so. Placing the glasses between the tip of the knife and corner of the plate. And since we were having company we used our tiny glasses placed in the middle of the plate to hold tomato juice. That was always the sign that we were having either a special meal or holiday dinner—we had tomato juice to start the meal.”

            That was as far as I got as the exercise was timed and we had to stop writing—but Richard said that the whole idea behind the prompt was to give us something to start and a place to go with it. So here is the rest of the story—be forewarned, it is a little….well, I will let you be the judge of it:

            “After setting the table, I found a glass of what I thought was tomato juice poured into a lovely container. To this day I do not know why I did what I did next—but I took a drink from it. It was not tomato juice at all! It was my mom’s homemade chili sauce. And she was none too pleased that I took a sip from it. Many times during my life I have asked myself “what was I thinking?” and I believe this was the first time I had this thought. How could I not have recognized that the lumpy chili sauce was not juice? I was mortified by my mistake and skulked away to my room. I think I remember this so well because I was deeply embarrassed about my stupid mistake—and it ruined the special meal for me.” I understand that this is no piece of writing genius but it is a vivid memory drawn from the word “childhood”.

            The workshop happened through the hard work of Nancy Belgue, Tara Hewitt, Brian Sweet, Joan Cope, Arleen Sinasac and to some extent me. A lot of thought and rethought, planning and replanning went into the day, and speaking for myself (and hopefully the other participants) “a good time was had by all.”