Figures Lie.
From the September 2015 issue of Men’s Journal:

“In a new Danish study, recreational runners who ran 10 miles per hour versus a slow jog of five miles per hour put 80 percent less stress on their knees. ‘Although running faster increases the load on your knee with each step, you take longer strides, so you need fewer steps to cover a certain distance,’ says study author Jesper Petersen, a researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark. ‘This lowers the cumulative load at the joint.’”

As a runner who’s had knee problems, this article seemed insightful. But that was only until I looked at the theory with a more jaundiced eye. While the article’s basic premise is that running faster may be better for your knees, there’s no further information on why the studied runners were performing at a faster pace.

In a perfect laboratory both the faster runners and the slower runners would have exactly the same physical attributes so the test results could be isolated to just the effects of speed and stride. But of course it’s unlikely that that’s what happened.

Instead the slower runners were probably slower because they’re older, heavier, or simply not as gifted as their quicker peers. And so the reasons for their increased knee pain might have more to do with the slower runners’ physical condition or previous injuries or weight than their ultimate speed.

I’m a slow runner and I’m sure a few of the reasons are that I’m just a donut or two shy of 190 pounds and my years of youthful indiscretions are long behind me. My left knee aches because of an unfortunate skiing accident when I was a reckless 19-year old and I’ve come to accept that running faster is neither possible nor a panacea for what ails me.

Of course the important question is why do you care about any of this? Because as you evaluate the products and services you buy, and the candidates you vote for, it’s critical to remember that facts and figures and surveys and studies can be manipulated to create most any outcome a marketer is looking to promote.

Since we’re smack in the middle of presidential elections, it’s fascinating to look at the proceedings NOT as a passionate partisan but as a curious marketer. And what you’ll find there proves that numbers can be manipulated to tell almost any tale the storyteller wants to tell.

Donald Trump, for example, is polling ahead in almost every count – Tea Partiers, Christian Conservatives, even Hispanics. But savvy marketing professionals will point out that while the polls may be accurate, a great number of the people interviewed fall into the groups with the lowest propensity to actually vote. In other words, while Trump’s numbers appear to be strong today, it’s very likely that the people being counted cannot be counted on to show up on election day.

Similarly, far on the other side of the aisle Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is racking up very impressive attendance figures at his campaign rallies – numbers so strong that some consider him a real competitor for the Democratic ticket. But once again, prudent analysis suggests that the people getting all hot and bothered at Sanders’ events are the very same people who often can’t be bothered to actually vote.

Remember that the two things computers are best at – counting and remembering numbers – are the exact tools the pundits and promoters use to peddle their promises and products – regardless of what thoughtful accounting would actually suggest. Be aware, too, of what researcher Jean Twenge explained in the June 2015 issue of Vanity Fair magazine: “All data and all studies are open to interpretation – that’s just the nature of research.”

Plus, there’s the “observer effect.” Simply put, it states that the act of observation can actually change the action being observed. For example, a regulation thermometer must either capture or surrender thermal energy to record a temperature, and in doing so, it changes the temperature of whatever it is evaluating.

So as you evaluate the proffered “facts” when you research your purchases or your candidates keep in mind that figures lie. And remember what former US Senator and Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”