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Va’ Pensiero: The tyranny of numbers
Point of View

Va’ Pensiero: The tyranny of numbers

Thursday, 10 January 2019
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Franco Cologni
President of the FHH Cultural Council

“Talent demands effort, dedication and hours spent perfecting a gesture which, day by day, becomes a gift.”

An entrepreneur at heart, though a man of letters, Franco Cologni was quick to embark on a business career that would lead him to key roles within the Richemont Group.

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4 min read

Official figures indicate that Swiss watch exports gained 7.1% over the first 11 months of 2018. What should we conclude from this?

Numerus rerum omnium nodus, wrote Cicero. A reminder that numbers, proportions and measured intervals are behind everything, and the only way we can hope to understand these numbers, and reality, is to study them. These same four words are inscribed on the side of the powerful Istituto Nazionale di Statistica in Rome, which each year issues dozens upon dozens of bulletins detailing Italy’s socio-economic situation: how many of us are there, how many of us get married, how many emigrate, and so on and so forth.

A science with important repercussions on political propaganda, statistics are a means of putting a figure on some of the essential “knots” in our lives. As such, they influence how we perceive wealth, well-being or security, and even the plans we inevitably make for our future. This is why, as Cicero already taught us, reading numbers is not enough. Most of all we must understand statistics and consider them in context, so that what is a science and a serious discipline does not become accomplice to a distorted vision of politics, the economy and the market. Because in this age of all-pervading but nonetheless superficial communication, there is a very real risk that we should read numbers and statistics in, let’s say, a distracted way. Similarly, there is an annoying but unfortunately marked tendency to report figures and statistics entirely out of context.

Statistics must be handled with care.
Franco Cologni

All of which comes down to this: statistics were never intended to be read like a horoscope, particularly when scanning a future horizon: you will be lucky in love, keep an eye on your finances, and as for health, who knows! Statistics must be handled with care. Each figure must be placed in context; each information considered in relation to the years that have passed and the events that took place; each calculation viewed with sufficient detachment to remind us there is always a way to smooth out the highs and lows, however far apart they may be.

In January, the watch industry publishes its statistics. Read them carefully. Numbers are behind everything, but the numbers in statistics must be read and interpreted wisely. Statistics are not a way to camouflage the deadly sins of a market that needs to grow, nor a cataplasm that brings the good together with the bad to say that, as far as mediocrity goes, all’s well. On the contrary, statistics must provide objective indicators that we must then examine in order to draw out the micromovements and the most noteworthy or unexpected trends.

Here’s my advice: don’t let statistics gain the upper hand; don’t let them lose the mantle of science to take on the far less noble cloak of accomplice to those intent on influencing public opinion with scant regard for the objective criteria that must underpin every survey. If statistics say we’ve eaten one chicken each, because I ate two and you ate none, would you take it for true? Of course not. This is why, and I repeat myself, we must have the curiosity and competency to go beyond the numbers and understand the contexts, the causes and the scope of the survey in question, and whatever else gives these numbers their true value. Otherwise, we are left with the bitter irony of Trilussa (1871-1950), the Roman poet who used that self-same chicken in a famous poem: “From the calculations made today,” writes this scathing social commentator, “It appears you eat one chicken a year. And even if chicken is a food you can’t afford, you’re part of the statistics anyway, because someone else has eaten two.”

And so to conclude: if you don’t want to be that chicken, take care never to read into numbers what isn’t there.

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