How many Countries in Africa?

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.” ~ Claude Lévi-Strauss

If you don’t know the answer to the question in the title then you’re far from alone –please don’t google it just yet!

So, imagine you’re observing a study. There are two groups that are separately given the same task, to collectively decide whether the number of countries in Africa is more or less than a certain provided value. One group are asked “Are there more or less than 20 countries?” for the other group the provided number is 40. Lets look at how this is done and how the groups differed.

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So what?!

“The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers.” ~ Richard Hamming

In the manifestos of most analytical teams and thousands of analyst job specs the words “deliver insight” ring proud. This is surely what we all aspire to do. It’s such a powerful word. Insight. Being insightful. It conjures images of wisdom and intellect beyond the ken of normal man.

But what really is it?

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Accuracy Vs Precision

“If you don’t know the answer, just guess and use two decimal places. Nobody will question it.” ~ Anonymous previous manager of mine

As analysts I’m sure we all feel the draw to improve the accuracy of any figures we provide. It’s all too easy, however to confuse precision with accuracy. Unfortunately this is at least as true for the people we deliver to as it is for us. I wouldn’t advocate following the advice in the quote above (despite having received it myself!) but it is all too likely to be effective…   for a while.

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