Pick a number – any number

Aug 30th

Mathematic proof

Let me say this about that.

As a young, recently graduated engineer, I accepted a job in Cape Canaveral, Florida working at an electronics company.  This particular company designed and manufactured sophisticated communications equipment for NASA’s Apollo space program, and for the use of the National Security Administration’s (NSA) efforts in the Vietnam war. 

My first week on the job, I was handed an assignment to respond to a government audit report that alleged 1/3 of all the company’s employees arrived late for work.  This was a serious charge since all our work was compensated on a “Cost-Plus” basis – meaning the more time we took to complete a specific job, the more we were paid.  The auditors also demanded a refund for ‘time not worked’.

The company was a ‘secure’ facility, owing to the secret nature of our work, and only had a couple of heavily guarded entrances to the facility.  This made verification of the audit’s allegation quite simple.  And yes, I found that the government auditors were correct – about 1/3 of all the employees arrived late each day.  I reported this to superiors but recommended we NOT refund any money to the government, based on the following logic: “If 1/3 of the employees were late, logic would lead to the conclusion that 2/3 were early.”  As such, the government owed us money.

The government and the company decided to…    just let the whole thing drop, but the incident instilled in me an appreciation of how mathematics can be used to support completely illogical conclusions.

Years later, at a different company, the “Human Resources” department sent me a notification that I needed to improve my employees’ absenteeism record surrounding holidays and weekends.  They claimed that 40% of my department’s absenteeism occurred on Fridays and Mondays.  What could I say?  Guilty.  But when I pointed out that 40% of the work week also occurred on Fridays and Mondays, they decided that I needed “Sensitivity” training instead.

In all my thirty-five years in business, thirty-four of them were spent as a manager.  One of several generalizations I can make about employees is that they almost never complain about their pay.  What the complain about is their pay – in relation to how much someone else is being paid.  In particular, someone else that they believe is of less value to the company than they are.  I don’t know how many times I have been confronted by a disgruntled employee who complained that they were more valuable than another employee – and yet, were paid less.  They generally ended their argument with the phrase:  I’m worth more than I’m being paid.”  In all those years, I never disagreed with any of them. I always replied:  “Of course you are worth more than you are being paid.  But the job you are currently performing, isn’t.”  I regret to say that response almost never inspired the employee to get more training or education to justify career advancement.

The unquestioned champion of using mathematics to support illogical conclusions is the media.  Reporters, if you have not learned this already, are not counted among the brightest bulbs in the chandelier to begin with.  Couple that with sparse formal education and intense pressure to sell newspapers and air time, you often get sensational “NEWS” that is nothing more than fallacious crap supported by bogus math.  Two famous news stories suppport what I am talking about.

In a 2006 story about motorcycle deaths in the State of Florida, CNN reported that the death rate of motorcycle riders, not wearing helmets, had skyrocketed since the Governor overturned the helmet law six years earlier.  While the sensational article reported a 67% rise in deaths since the repeal of the law, it failed to report an 87% rise in the number of motorcycles registered in Florida during the same period – which mathematically supported a REDUCTION in the rate of deaths.

A report by the ‘Associated Press’ (AP) in 1997 broke a story about the health concerns of employees of nuclear power  plants.  With great fanfare, it disclosed that a third of all deaths of nuclear workers was due to cancer and called for more strict regulation.  When the claim was investigated, it was found that a third of all deaths in the general population was also due to cancer.

Figures don’t lie – but liars figure.

After I retired from the business world, I spent a couple of years as an elected official in my hometown.  There is one mathematical certainty about politicians that I learned in those two years that I can now report:  “If you lined up all the politicians in the world – end to end – they would not reach a conclusion.”

And, that’s all I have to say about that.



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