Stop Abusing Numbers, It Will Help You

“There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
Benjamin Disraeli

Numbers are useful; they give us the ability to make comparisons, identify trends, and identify gains.  We built a lot of modern civilization on numbers, architecture, engineering, finance, the ability to elect politicians or vote on laws.  We use numbers to support arguments or draw attention to a problem we see.

However, it is essential to pay attention to the use of numbers.  Why are you making the choices you made?  When I read an article that starts with numbers and then stops using them, I get suspicious.  I have been thinking about this a lot since I read an article back in October, that article was ‘Fortnite’ teaches the wrong lessons in THE CONVERSATION.

The article argues that the video game Fortnite is teaching the wrong lessons and this will be harmful to society.  To quote the article,

“I couldn’t help but notice how much the game seems to teach children the wrong lessons about how to function as an adult and interact with others. I came away from my “Fortnite” experience thinking that the game is raising young people to be self-centered, not good citizens.”
Nicholas Tampio

The central argument of the article is that the number of players compounds the games “problems.”  Around October 2018 epic games announced it had 125 million players by December 2018 this number had grown to 200 million players. These are undoubtedly large numbers, especially if you write them out 125,000,000 – 200,000,000, most people can’t comprehend numbers that size it triggers an incomprehensible response.

Undoubtedly that is the response the author wanted.  I would argue that this is, in fact, a miss representation and an egregious one at that.  After all, there is another number that is important 7,545,224,830 or 7.6 billion which is the world population according to the Census Bureau world population clock at 5:34 PM January 9, 2019.  Why is this important? The world population is significant because the 125-200 million Fortnite Players are worldwide.

More importantly, the author could have presented this information differently.  Specifically, what would you say if I wrote an article arguing that Fortnite was a problem for the future of society and I based my whole argument on the fact that 1.7% – 2.7% of the population played Fortnite?  I would guess you would probably not take me seriously.

Now then the Fortnite player numbers of 125 – 200 million are worldwide numbers, and the numbers calculate out to 1.7% – 2.7% of the world population.  What’s more important 1.7% means the same thing as the 125 million used in the original article and it is easier to understand.  That is a little incorrect if the author had written the number correctly, 1256 million players would be 125 million people around the world or 125 million out of 7.6 billion people, then they would have been the same.

The only reason to use the numbers this way is the shock value.  From the point of content, there would have been little differences with the opening paragraph if the author had left out the number.  Don’t believe me read the two options below.

The opening paragraph as written in the article.

“In recognition of the fact that “Fortnite” has quickly become one of the most popular video games in the world – one played by more than 125 million players – I decided to play the game myself in an attempt to understand its widespread appeal.”

The opening Paragraph without the numbers.

“In recognition of the fact that “Fortnite” has quickly become one of the most popular video games in the world I decided to play the game myself in an attempt to understand its widespread appeal.”

Both paragraphs get the same message across. So why use the number to shock people, there is another place in the article were numbers are miss represented.  In the section titled a time-consuming habit, the author presents information about the average length of play. The average player plays between 6 and 10 hours a week with 7% playing more than 21 hours.

However, let’s spend some time looking at these numbers, how many hours are there actually in a week?  The answer is 168 hours, so what percentage do 6 – 10 hours workout to 3.6% – 6% of a week.  Looking at the high end 21 hours is 12.5% what if they played for 30 hours a week that would be 17.8%.

Let’s look at another couple of points, if you get the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night that is 56 hours a week or 33.3% repeating (Leroy Jenkins anyone? Sorry couldn’t help myself.) of the week.  A full-time job is 40 hours or 23.8% of the week.  If you played Fortnite for 30 hours a week, got 8 hours of sleep a night, and worked a full-time job that would add up to 75% of the week you would still have 42 hours a week for other things.  Personally, these numbers don’t seem all that problematic.

Also, there are several points where numbers are conspicuously absent.  One of these is that couples are starting to blame Fortnite for their divorce. To begin with, this is not the first time video games have been blamed for a divorce, see this article from 2008 about the World of Warcraft video game.  More importantly, according to the American Psychology Association, the divorce rate is 40% – 50%.  Let’s ask the important question if we look at all the Fortnite players do more then 50% of the married Fortnite players get divorced? The only available answer that addresses this is from England were 5% of the divorces filed with Divorce Online sited Fortnite.  So does Fortnite have a fundamental effect on Divorces, personally I don’t think so (at least not yet)?

Another point made in the article is the hiring of tutors to improve your Fortnite play.  The author presents tutors as unique to Fortnite.  However, this is not true the first time I became aware of hiring tutors for video games was when several websites offered links to tutors when Hearthstone launched in 2014. The reality is video game tutors are more dependent on the emergence of the e-sports market then Fortnite.

One of the last points is the idea that video games cause adverse developmental effects.  The developmental effects of video games are a topic that can fill up entire books.  The only thing I will say is that for every study saying that video games are bad there is a study showing they are not.  To present a single review and say video games are dangerous without the counterpoints is a gross miss representation of the data. I think the data is leaning in the direction of video games not having an adverse impact on development, but that’s a different argument. The only thing we can conclusively say about video games is that we don’t know what kind of effect they have on development. 

While I think this article badly miss represents the data about Fortnite I believe there is an even more critical point here.  I don’t think Fortnite is a problem, however, maybe it will become one or a video game in the future will be a problem.  However, as an author of a document miss using numbers undermines the believability of your writing.  You could be presenting correct ideas, but if you show your data incorrectly, you give your opponents the ability to ruin your arguments.

Using data to fear monger is never the correct approach.  If you want to influence people and policy, you need to present arguments that lay out all the viewpoints and present your viewpoint in a logically unassailable way.  When you use numbers make sure you use them correctly, or you may hurt yourself more than you help.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

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