Useless information, damned lies and odd statistics - Veterinary Practice
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Useless information, damned lies and odd statistics

Ewan McNeil muses on the wealth of statistical information at our fingertips, what value it is, and whether we tend to think more highly of ourselves than the evidence warrants.

DID YOU KNOW THAT THE life expectancy in Bolivia is 65.8 years?
Or that at least 10 people are crushed
annually by vending machines toppling
over? And 44% of us reuse tinfoil.

Welcome, if that’s the correct word,
to the wonderful world of statistics,
where almost anything can be reduced
to a point on a graph, a slice of a pie
chart or a figure in a spreadsheet … so
much so that we
know with a
good degree
of certainty
that 90% of us
depend on alarm
clocks to wake
up, 58.4% of all
employees have
called into work
sick when they
weren’t, 49% of
people believe in ESP and 57% have
had déjà vu. And so on–and on.

In a
world that is preoccupied with numbers,
sometimes it can seem as if we are
overwhelmed with statistics, many of
which we don’t actually require.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that
some statistics aren’t important – science
would grind to a halt if we had no way
of proving an idea or hypothesis in a
rational manner. Similarly, I quite accept
that organisations such as national and
local governments need to know certain
trends, averages and figures to make
informed decisions and go about the
business of keeping the country running
in at least some semblance of order.

But I’m talking about stats that seem
to have no real function, and many of
the figures quoted above may t into this
category – although useless facts such
as these have a certain mild attraction
for many people and when I started the
research for this article I quickly found
myself hooked.

Food-related figures, for some reason,
seem especially appealing; 9% of us skip
breakfast daily but 22% skip lunch. When
nobody else is around, almost half of us
will drink orange juice straight from the
carton. One third of all ice cream sold is
vanilla flavour, and the same percentage
of all potatoes grown end up as chips –
perhaps not surprising when you learn
that 22% of restaurant meals include
French fries. Americans eat a total of 18
acres of pizza every day, and 93% of us
put ketchup on our burgers.

I confess to finding these numbers
both credible and intriguing, if not
exactly useful. But other statistics are
harder to believe – for example, in a
typical square acre of countryside there
are approximately 50,000 spiders. The
odds of being killed by debris falling
from space are one in five billion, but
the chances of being killed by poisoning
are one in 86,000. The average iceberg
weighs 20 million tons.

You can spend hours wondering
how on earth these gures are actually
determined. And why.

Does all this suggest that some people
have too little to do and therefore spend
their time collating useless information
to make pointless statistics, and do such
individuals need help? In fact, is there
any link between futile statistics and the
fact that 14% of the UK population have attended a self-
help meeting?
Is it possible
that at least
some of them
are members
of Statisticians
(Actually, I
doubt this
really exists: I just made it up! But if it did, we can
hazard a guess that they would probably
have the most boring after-dinner
speakers ever.)

But statistics can also be frustrating
at times. We might feel, for example,
that a quoted figure is simply not
accurate; do you believe that only 13%
of parents admit to occasionally doing
their offspring’s homework? I suspect
it’s far higher (and you may recognise
the voice of experience here). And
other percentages can leave you wanting
more information; 20% of men propose
on their knees but 6% propose over
the phone. But how many pop the
question using the phone but kneeling
whilst doing so? And what if statistics
confound each other? Men apparently
do 29% of the laundry each week, but
only 7% of women trust their husbands
to do it correctly. And some stats may
leave us baffled (e.g. if staying with a
friend, 39% of us peek in our host’s
bathroom cabinet).

Now I do see the relevance of some
stats, in that they can point out risks which
await the unwary; one study reports that
a driver’s risk of collision is 23 times
greater when they are texting, but it
surely doesn’t require a mathematician
to work out that you should really pay
full attention to driving when you’re
behind the wheel. On average, 100
people choke to death on ballpoint pens
every year; does this mean that we should
stop using all ballpoint pens? And each
year approximately the same number of
Russians are killed when sharp icicles fall
from snowy rooftops and land on hapless
victims walking below.

In fact, given the number of stats that
point to unexpected or unusual ways to
die, do we take the attitude that it’s safer
to simply stay in bed? If so, you may wish
to know that the average person has over
1,460 dreams a year, but beware; falling
out of bed accounts for 1.8 million
A&E visits and over 400,000 hospital admissions each year in the US alone.
And whilst we’re on the subject, 21% of
us don’t always make our bed on a daily
basis and 5% of us never do!

Closer to home is the topic of
veterinary-related statistics. Business
gurus will churn out some of the
numbers (e.g. you need 10,000 people in a
town to support one vet; the average cost
of sales is 28% of a practice’s turnover)
whilst professional bodies such as the
RCVS will produce others (e.g. 7% of all
vets will have a complaint made against
them in their first 12 months in practice;
the average vet is 45.5 years of age).

But I’m drawn to the more useless or
esoteric side of things again, and vets
may nd some of the following gures
rather worrying, fairly reassuring, or just
plain useless. For example, and back to
death again for the next two statistics,
did you know that you are more likely
to be killed by a champagne cork than
a poisonous spider? And how do we
react to the news that more people are
killed annually by donkeys than die in air
crashes – does this reassure you that you
were right not to become an equine vet?

From dying to lying

Perhaps most worryingly, and returning
to the headline on this piece, statistics say
that 91% of us lie regularly. Of course,
this is the classic catch-22 situation; if
you ask someone if they tell bs, and
they say no, are they actually lying? But
if nine out of every 10 people tell lies,
we must assume that at least some of
them are statisticians – and so should we
call into question all the above facts? Are
over 90% of the gures I’ve just given
you complete rubbish?

Quite possibly yes. But allow yourself
to ponder one statistic that apparently
applies to the general population, and
consider if we can extrapolate it into our
own small world: 35% of people give to
charity at least once a month – which is
laudable. But does this figure accurately
represent the number of vets that give
to charity?

I’m not talking about donations to
good causes here. I’m referring to the
large number of us who seem happy
to give money away several times a day,
every day, when it comes to pricing up
cases. There are various reasons for this
– maybe we undervalue our own abilities,
basing the fee on the animal’s worth (“I’ll
not charge a full consultation for the
rabbit, they only paid £5 for it at the pet
shop”), or because we feel guilty charging
for a sick animal’s treatment (“We’ll not
ask full price for these x-rays since the
cat’s probably going to die soon”), or
because we reckon the client can’t afford
it (“He looks like he doesn’t have much
money to spare”).

Then there’s deliberately not charging
for a service (“Dematting the cat whilst
he was under anaesthetic for dental work didn’t take the nurse many minutes, so
we’ll not charge for that”) or not adding
on a fee because a test was negative
(“There were no abnormalities on the
urine test and a dipstick costs almost
nothing, so we’ll not include that on the
bill”). And there’s the huge amounts that
some vets give away each day by simply
forgetting to include items on an invoice
(farm vets are the worst at this; how many
bottles of antibiotic go un-charged each
year?) and it’s all because the profession
is truly awful when it comes to basic
common sense in business.

Not only are we really good – or
really bad – at these unofficial charity
donations, we don’t even tell our clients
that they’re getting a bargain. If we’re
going to offer unasked-for discounts,
then we should at least tell owners what
we’re doing for them.

I was going to say that employed vets
are the worst offenders, as it’s not their
business to worry about pro t and loss,
but on reflection perhaps this isn’t true
– bosses and partners can be just as bad,
and if you recognise your own practice in
this description you may well be asking
how you put an end to this generous

Sadly, I’m not sure that you can, as
the trait is so ingrained, although I offer
one or two possibilities. If your partner
or assistant wants to give away money,
suggest that he or she has an annual limit
of, say, £1,000, which can be set against
invoices as they wish; once this amount
is exceeded, the balance is deducted from
their salary or pro ts. Or if a person
wants to give someone a 20% discount
on their bill, there’s no problem – simply
propose that the practice will stand half
of the amount, on condition that the
individual stands the other half.

And if you feel certain that you’re not
guilty of this practice, think again. I can
almost hear you say, “Yes, I know my
partner/assistant/boss discounts all the
time, but hey, thank goodness I don’t”.
Let me just give you another couple of
statistics: 85% of people believe they are
above average at driving, and 94% of
university professors apparently consider
themselves to be academically superior
to their peers.

These figures surely suggest that we
tend to think more highly of ourselves
than thorough analysis of the evidence
warrants, although in fact the scrutiny
doesn’t even need to be rigorous;
presumably only 50% of us can be
better than average at driving? In other
words, most of us are pretty good
at self-deception, so do check how
accurate your pricing is before asking
your assistant/partner if he/she has
charged out everything properly today.
In any case, the reply will surely be “Yes,
of course.” You can take this answer at
face value. Or you can remind yourself
that 91% of us regularly lie.

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