Oooh, Talk Data To Me! By Tom Cosgrove

Here’s the beauty of statistics: The numbers tell the story. The most adept CEO, public relations expert, or sales rep can put as much of a spin on statistical data as he or she can muster, but the numbers remain. Think of it as stark poetry, like the readout on your bathroom scale.

On the flip side of the coin, one of the most enduring of Mark Twain’s witticisms is his ranking of the three most vile untruths (in descending order: lies, damned lies, statistics).

Numbers can be “fudged,” taken out of context, or offered without the necessary background on how they were obtained. For instance, if we interviewed only bedding plant producers for our past four annual State of the Industry surveys (selected findings from the Fourth Annual State of the Industry survey appear in this issue starting on p. 28), we would be informing you that perennials remain a marginal segment of the market.

Since we’re on the subject of the State of the Industry survey, I feel I should come clean and confess that my fellow GPN editors and I have a love/hate relationship with the thing. No matter how much front-end work we’ve done on the survey, we always realize in hindsight that certain portions of the questionnaire should have been worded differently, that we were not specific enough in certain places, or that the universe of readers to whom we mailed the questionnaire should have been expanded (or shrunk).

We all realize that every finding we glean from the raw data will carry like a virus some degree of “margin of error,” regardless of how rigorously the survey is written and tabulated. Knowing this, we must stop short of pronouncing market or production trends from the mountaintop no matter how irresistible the desire to do so.

And yet there’s something about numbers in print; they carry the stamp of utter factuality. We look at the numbers detailing crops grown, money earned, money spent and overall square feet of production, and we react as if they have been forged from the raw stuff of truth and engraved on the page – until we remember that it was we who generated the numbers from the survey we compiled and mailed.

This is why we have included with the survey article a “methodology” that specifies who received the survey, how many filled it out and returned it, and how we processed the raw data into “findings of fact.”

We also recognize the inherent flaws of adding up numbers and then providing an average or mean. The classic example of this is how a statistician would describe a man who has his head in an oven and his feet in a freezer. Don’t worry, the statistician would reassure us, he’s be feeling comfortable overall.

But as we’ve been going through the learning curve over the past four years, we’ve been developing a fondness and a respect for our State of the Industry survey. Like a puppy maturing into doghood alongside her owner, we are beginning to realize that what causes us to wring our hands in frustration over the survey is no reflection on the survey itself. The survey will deliver the numbers. The responsibility lies with us to ensure that the numbers are gathered, toted up, tabulated and properly interpreted. As they say in Texas, we are beginning to teach our dog to hunt.

And on the subject of love/hate relationships, we are currently a little miffed at our Web site, I apologize to the dozen or so readers who have posted unanswered questions on our “Ask the Experts” page. These were questions we couldn’t even click on, much less route to the appropriate expert. When our Internet service provider informed us that it had been brought out and was no longer contracting with outside clients, we decided to bring all Web-related functions inhouse. This is a good move on our part, and we’re beefing up with the resources necessary to do it right.

Unfortunately, during this transition, questions posted to the site over about a two-week span were left in cyber-limbo. For the time being, we are posting a temporary “Not in Service” sign on the Ask the Experts page. We expect it to be up and running soon. As a token of our appreciation for your patience, we have instructed our experts, once the service is restored, to answer each of your questions with an extra measure of timely attentiveness and concern.

I’ve been in the doghouse before and it’s not one of my places of choice, so until Ask the Experts is back on line I’ll be hounding…(sorry!). As I was saying, we at GPN are committed to making our magazine and Web site the best infotainment package in the floriculture industry!

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