Letters & Opinion

Evening numbers to eliminate odds!

A simple yet amazing story about commonsense everyday use of statistics

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

OCTOBER 20 was observed by United Nations member-states as World Statistics Day. Beginning in 2010, it is observed every five years, the third time due next year.

But statistics are important every second, every minute and every hour of each day — and the day of observance aims to show that good data and statistics about everything is indispensable for informed decision-making by all actors in society.

Many may feel no one should even need to explain why statistics are important. But not everyone knows everything.

So, for the benefit of the many still not knowing why a special day has been put aside for its observance, here’s what I found to be a simple yet powerful story on creative application of statistics to solve even the most difficult problems.

It’s basically a tropical adaptation of a story originally sent to me by a WhatsApp friend. It’s like this:

A father left 17 cows as an Asset for his three sons.

When he passed away, his sons opened up his Last Will and Testament.

It stated that the Eldest son should get half of the 17 cows, the Middle Son should be given one third of 17 cows and the youngest son should be given one-ninth of the 17 cows.

But, as it is not possible to divide 17 cows into half, or divide 17 cows by 3, or divide 17 cows by 9, the sons started to fight over how to share them according to their father’s Will.

So, they decided to consult a wise man, who listened patiently to their sorry story about their fights.

The wise man, after giving this thought, went home and returned with one cow of his own and added it to their 17, thereby increasing the number to 18.

Then, he started reading the deceased father’s will and sharing the cows accordingly.

He said: ‘Half of 18 = 9’, so he gave 9 cows to the eldest son.

‘One third of 18 = 6’, so he gave 6 cows to the middle son.

‘One ninth of 18 = 2’, so he gave 2 cows to the youngest son.

After distributing the cows, he had given 9 to the oldest, 6 to the middle son and 2 to the youngest – just as their father had willed.

But, having distributed the 17 cows, there was one left – his own, which the wise man then took back and went back home.

THE MORAL: The original story was about camels, but it could have been as much about cows or cars, as about mangoes.

The moral of the story, though, is to have that positive attitude towards negotiation and problem-solving.

The attitude must always be to find that 18th cow, which is the absent but always present statistic that provides common ground.

Once a person is able to find the common ground, the issue is resolved.

It can be difficult at times, but this wise man found the solution by making an odd number even, to eliminate the odds.

The story here is that the wise man was a good statistician who used the simplest of statistics to reach a solution.

The first step to negotiation, therefore, is to believe that there is a solution.

If we think there is no solution, we won’t be able to reach any.

And that’s the power of statistics — if and when creatively applied to problem-solving.

AND THEN THIS… However, there’s also a not-so-nice variable correctly called Statistical Demagoguery, which proves too that, just like facts and figures, statistics can also easily be used for demagogic purposes – like to mislead or confuse. I read in a newspaper in Guyana late last month a column that was supposed to be ‘mind boggling’. It stated that ‘ONLY during the year 2019’, anyone can tell his or her age by subtracting his or her year of birth from 2019. The column also claimed ‘This only happens once in a thousand years…’ The friend who showed me the column was quite convinced — until I did the arithmetic and told her it was ‘half true, but a total lie’ as the equation can equally apply to anyone born in any year, no matter when. I was sorry to bust her bubble, but my dear friend really believed it. Why? Because it appeared in her favourite daily newspaper. She’d shared it with so many others, until I burst her bag. And she probably regretted ever showing it to me in the first place. See what I mean?

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