Nothing appears as a fact more than a number. If you see the number two, no one can dispute that it is the number two. Yet working with numbers can be difficult. They create confusion by inferring certainty while hiding their relationships necessary to discover the context and meaning of what they are stating.
All numbers to have meaning represent some type of relationship. Your checking account balance is dependent on your spending habits. There is a relationship between them. What you earn is another relationship that your checking account balance hides. To better understand what the numbers that are described as your checking account balance mean, you need to understand the relationships that make up that number.
In the absence of understanding the relationships numbers represent, we sometimes jump to conclusions as to what they mean. Again giving us a false sense of certainty that leads to many errors. The mistake made here is that we often look at a number in isolation as if it is a constant without considering the fact that it might change over time. Comparing the same number over two different time periods gives a much greater perspective on what an individual number might mean.
No matter whether it is population data, test scores, or financial statements. numbers will vary over time. Their importance or lack thereof will always be dependent on what they are compared against. Which brings us to a larger issue. What we choose to compare a number against.
You see, we almost always choose the comparison number so that it conveniently fits our beliefs. Without ever thinking about the deeper relationships with things other than time that affect the number we are comparing. Simply to quickly prove a point or win an argument.
In summary, numbers are difficult and confusing because they always describe a relationship that goes beyond the number itself, without understanding what the relationships are we jump to wrong conclusions, that most numbers change with time, and that when we do choose a comparison number it usually is to support our personal belief rather than to pick a comparison number that works towards a new understanding that would give us more accuracy and context.
Just remember, numbers don’t have to be difficult once we understand what’s behind them and the mistakes we commonly make when seeing them.