Daily question: Aren’t numbers important?

Ben Goldacre in Guardian.com:

We’re all losers in the numbers game

We’re all suckers for a big number, and you’ll be delighted to hear that the Journal of Consumer Research has huge teams of scientists eagerly writing up their sinister research on how to exploit us.

One excellent study this month (DOI: 10.1086/593947) looked at how people choose a camera. The researchers took a single image and made two copies: one where the colours were more vivid, and one where the image was sharper. They told participants each image came from a different camera, and asked which they wanted to buy. A quarter chose the one with the more colourful image.

Then researchers piled it on. They said the other camera had more pixels, using a figure derived from the diagonal width of the sensor. Suddenly more than half picked this camera. Then they told them the other camera had more pixels, but this time they used the number of pixels as evidence: a figure measured in millions. Suddenly, three quarters chose the supposedly better camera.

Do you know the operational efficiency rating of your refrigerator? How about the per-minute heating capacity of your toaster? Degree-of-distortion-per-meter of your rear-view mirror? Before a shoe purchase, do you even check the steps-per-month it takes for them to lose their impact-cushionability? Have you ever paid any attention to the thread-count of your neckties?

What numbers do you pay attention to then?

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