The Fear of All Sums

The results are in. We The People stink at math.  Which should surprise no one… we’ve been pretty consistent about it for the past couple decades.

What is surprising, at least to me, is that in spite of our math struggles, we’re still so numbers-oriented.  This year alone…

  • Hollywood invented a new unit of time, the Kardashian.  1 K=72 days.  (Consult this calculator to help you determine how many Kardashians you and your spouse have been together.)
  • In politics, the “we are the 99%” movement was born out of frustration with wealth inequality, only to be countered by the “we are the 53%” movement protesting income tax inequality.
  • On the Internet, there’s Klout, which managed to rub quite a few people the wrong way by tweaking a few formulas.

Numbers are everywhere. Your Facebook friends. Your weight. Your website’s hits. Your age. Everyone has a number they obsess over. But what if those numbers are meaningless?

Now, I’m a numbers guy working in a numbers-oriented field (marketing research). And I’m a big proponent of data-supported decision making. But the problem with numbers, whether it’s Klout scores or customer survey data or political movements or SEO stats or anything else, is when the number starts obscuring the meaning.

Klout’s an interesting case study because they made a well-intentioned attempt to create a more transparent, more accurate measurement of online influence.  But the results – including lower scores for some major influencers, seemingly inconsistent scores across accounts, and troubling tips on how to improve your score – caused many to call the entire system into question. In other words, an attempt to make the number more meaningful backfired.

(As an aside… I find it interesting that complaints tended to center on the scores and not the Klout Style. Sure, if they recalibrate their formulas, I’d expect some fluctuations in scores. But the Klout Style is supposedly a description of my online persona: the Socializer, the Observer, the Specialist, etc.  To me, the big credibility question isn’t why my score dropped 12 points, it’s how my online personality supposedly changed overnight.)

But let’s say the formulas hadn’t changed and the old algorithms were still cranking out the same old scores. What did that number really tell you? Do you even know how it was calculated? Or were you just focused on making sure your score rose instead of fell?

Or what if you’re a waiter bringing home $30,000 a year. How well can you relate to the banker making $300,000 a year? Does it really matter that you are both part of the “99%”?

Or let’s say you’re an executive who likes the Net Promoter Score approach. If your score is a 30, do you throw a party or hit the panic button? Does it matter how you got to that 30 (“30 minus 0” versus “60 minus 30”)? Or are you just hoping for a better result than last year’s study?

We are attracted to numbers because they seem so definite, so black-and-white, so unquestionable. But the danger of numbers lies in their simplicity, and in the fact that they enable and encourage a single-minded focus.

So the next time you find yourself fixated on a number, do yourself a favor. Stop thinking about the number and start thinking about the math behind it. Where does the number come from? Can you impact the variables in the formula? Is the number really relevant for your specific situation?

Who knows, maybe you’ll find you have one less thing to worry about. Which means you can dedicate all that mental energy to something else.

Like figuring out presents for five Kardashiversaries every year.


  1. Jayme (RandomBlogette)

    I love this. I so agree with everything he said. Stop being fixated on numbers and start thinking about the content we are creating.

    • Tom

      Amen! I recently caught myself spending way too much time thinking about my blog’s traffic, how to boost it, etc. Had to take a step back and remind myself that this is supposed to be fun.

  2. angela

    What a great post. My husband is an actuary. Lots and lots of numbers and statistical analysis involved there, and he gets irritated by oversimplification of statistics 😉

    • Tom

      I sympathize with your husband. Abuse of statistics is rampant, I see it all the time. Rarely is there a day when I’m not ranting about correlation vs causation to someone.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!



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