In my interactions with legislators, regulators, marketers, journalists, producers, activists and scientists, one thing has become very apparent: Numbers are used to legislate, regulate and retaliate. A lot of numbers are thrown around by those who didn’t generate them, who don’t understand where they came from or even how they were collected or analyzed — yet these individuals are quite comfortable using numbers to advance their agendas.
In their purest form, numbers describe a count of something. If Jessie has 11 calves in the pasture, Jessie has 11 calves. But then we learn that Jessie has 20 cows. That’s nine cows freeloading! As this news hits the corner booth in the local Quickstop, I can only imagine the interpretation.
Marketer: That’s what our stuff will do for ya! Ten cows had a 110% calf crop!
Journalist: Barren cows and lazy bulls! Survey indicates 45% of cows in the county don’t have a calf! Local celebrity comments on this tragedy at 10 tonight! #selfpromote!!
Scientist: I have calculated this is a 55% calf crop, which places it in the third quartile of the distribution. My forest plots and box-and-whisker plots show that this is above average (50%), and we should give Jessie a prize.
Activist: We need to reduce the number of cows to equal the number of calves. Load up nine of those cows and get them gone! Which nine? That doesn’t matter; the number of cows must equal the number of calves, with a plan to reduce the number of cows to 50% of the number of calves. Focus on eliminating the farting cows.
Regulator: We are learning of concern about lazy bulls and farting cows. We have enforcement personnel on scene, and a draft policy is coming out for public comment.
Legislator: I have been making daily calls to our regulators and law enforcement about this 55% of cows keeping calves to themselves and not sharing them. Taken across our county, that means around 11,250 cows are without calves because 13,750 are hoarding them. I will introduce the Mandatory Calf Sharing and Redistribution Act of Buford County next week!
Jessie: I wish I hadn’t bought those nine new bred cows last week.
A little far-fetched and fanciful? I wish. Numbers have turned from windows into weapons. In working with numbers to monitor antibiotic use, it is very apparent to me that numbers are best used to go back and understand where they came from, and help everyone see where they fall among their peers.
The metrics (the outcome parameters we use to discuss the numbers) are also incredibly important. They can be easily misconstrued or misrepresented. Typically, a variety of metrics are needed to evaluate situations, and these evaluations are best made by those aware of all the details involved.
Calling for arbitrary reductions or alterations in numbers that aren’t understood well leads to disasters. Unfortunately, in today’s electronic media world, some of these numbers and interpretations live on long after they have been debunked.
Today we struggle with different worldviews and knowledge bases looking at an issue from countless directions. The one thing we can do is ensure the numbers, and how they are analyzed and reported, are right.
For example, the American Statistics Association recently put out a statement on what the oft-quoted “P value” really means and doesn’t mean. We also have an explosion of in-silica (computer) modeling with hypothetical relationships, and often hypothetical inputs, which are soon presented as fact. It turns out “they” can come up with some pretty interesting numbers.
So, what to do? Support producer and veterinary organizations that fact-check and put out valid numbers and analyses of these numbers. When someone is using a number as a club, ask where it came from and trace it back. Reach out to those who might know or have a contact who does know.
Just like Jessie’s nine new cows, the real answer is often buried back in there somewhere.
Apley, DVM, Ph.D., is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.