Friday, November 7, 2014

STATISTICS FALLACY – “Ask this Fish” – The “Small Picture”

“Ask this Fish” – The “Small Picture” 

This happened 30 years ago when I was in Delhi.

The promotion signal came in the morning.

All those who had been promoted hoisted the “gin pennant” in the Navy Wardroom.

Sadly, our boss, who had also been my shipmate earlier, had been passed over for promotion – his name was not on the select list.

He was very dejected, since had had expected to be promoted.

However, he accompanied us to the PLD in the Navy Wardroom.

We stood at the end of the bar, commiserating with him, as he drowned his sorrows, watching the stripe-wetting of the jubilant newly promoted officers, most of whom were his course-mates.

The DOP, a Commodore, was standing near us, and he was gleefully bragging how they had managed to achieve the highest promotion percentage ever.

“More than 60% of the officers considered have been promoted,” he gloated.

Our boss, who had missed his promotion, turned to the Commodore and said, “To me, how does it matter whether 60%, 70% or even 80% have been promoted – the fact is that I haven’t been promoted.”

“Macro Perspective” is different from the “Micro Perspective”.

Statistics is based on “hard” data, and mostly gives the “big picture” or “macro perspective”.

That is why, in the “soft” human domain, where the “small picture” or “micro perspective” matters, statistics can be a fallacy.

When you are adversely affected, statistics cannot console you.

After a battle, the victorious army may boast that it inflicted 50% more casualties on the enemy than the enemy inflicted on it.

“We killed 100 enemy soldiers, and they killed only 50 of our men”, the General may boast.

But for the family of the soldier who has died, these statistics make no difference, even though the soldier belonged to the victorious army – the fact that twice the number of enemy soldiers were killed is no consolation for the widow of the martyred soldier.

A ship sinks. 

The Navy claims that the rescue effort is a success as 90% of the sailors are rescued. 

But think of the 10% who drowned in the ocean – does the 90% “success rate” make any difference to drowned sailors or their near and dear ones?

It is similar with examination results – even if the passing percentage is 99% – it is no consolation to the 1% who failed.

Statistics are cold facts, and paint a “hard” picture, which may lead to false impressions and mistaken beliefs.

You may have heard this story titled “ASK THIS FISH” which illustrates this aspect.


There was a cyclonic storm and millions of fish were washed ashore and were struggling for life on the beach. 

A man came to the beach and patiently began to pick up the fish, one by one, and throw them back into the sea. 

An amused passerby asked him what difference it would make by saving just a few fish by throwing them back into the sea, since there were millions of fish dying on the beach.

The man pointed to the fish in his hand, which he was about to throw into the sea, and said, “Ask this fish?” 

And then, he threw that fish into the sea to give it life.


Never rely solely on statistics and hard data – remember this story and think of the human element, each and every individual stakeholder, the “micro perspective”, the “small picture” before you take a decision.

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All stories in this blog are a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the story are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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