I was at a big networking event last night; you may know the kind of thing. Captains of Industry – predominantly middle-aged, overweight men – talking too loudly and drinking too much in a swanky venue that’s usually the haunt of beautiful people. Very entertaining, but something of a clash of cultures for me (and I do hope that my generation loosen this world up a bit – fewer ties, fewer pot bellies and a lot better gender mix).

Anyway, I digress. Whilst doing the networking thing, I met a woman who introduced herself as being from the NHS (I won’t say which bit for fear of embarrassment) and then immediately told the hoary old zombie statistic about the health service being the world’s third-largest employer. “It’s not.” I said, rather rudely, and quoted the wonderful BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17429786) which investigated the very issue last year.

“Oh, but it’s only a story” our health administration friend protested. I was too polite to launch into what I wanted to say, because I’m reasonably well house-trained, and, after all, that’s what my blog is for.

A story has a narrative; “The NHS is the world’s third largest employer after the Chinese Red Army and the Indian Railways” is a statistical statement of no value. (It’s the fifth largest, after the US Department of Defense, the People’s Liberation Army, Walmart and McDonalds (the latter being one of the reasons, of course, why the NHS needs to come fifth…)

There is a simple, but powerful, story to be told out of this zombie stat – something along the lines of “The NHS is such a big employer that popular myth says we’re the world’s third largest employer. Of course that’s nonsense – we’re only fifth!” is a much more powerful way to get the message across (and at the same time corrects misconceptions).

I’m very much of the opinion that one shouldn’t let facts get in the way of a good story as apparently Mark Twain once said, but confusing an incorrect fact for a story is a very risky thing to do indeed.

One thought on “Lies, damned lies and zombie statistics

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