The implication is that, in the right hands and directed at the right audience, statistics can be used to add weight to any old half-baked argument. This is particularly appropriate here in the UK at the moment; we’re knee deep in the usual messy campaigning for the 2015 general election, and up to our necks in questionable facts and figures.
Suddenly, for a couple of months, the humble statistic is big news.
To put it another way, as 19th Century Scottish poet, novelist, and literary critic Andrew Lang observed, “Politicians use statistics in the same way that a drunk uses lamp posts – for support, rather than illumination.”
Luckily, I’m a man who likes a good stat. I’m also mildly obsessed with cycling in all its forms, and an interested observer in all this electioneering, so I’m very much the target audience once the cycling press gets around to analysing the voting habits of us cyclists; we’re a demographic all of our own these days, it seems.
Cycling Weekly have duly obliged with this piece about the fact that, as a group, we are more likely to vote for the Liberal Democrats than any other political party.
If I was being kind, I would say that this is because cyclists are the kind of people who like the idea of a fair, free and open society, where the values of liberty and equality are valued above all else. If I was being unkind, I might say it’s because we’re incapable of making up our minds on even the simplest of decisions (I think our friend “The Routemaster” might have a thing or two to say about that).
The article also describes cyclists as the most materialistic of all the exercise groups – well, I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion!
Rapha espresso set, anyone?
But no statistically related discussion of the habits of cyclists is complete without mention of the data-centric world of Strava.
I’ve written before – with a certain reverence – about those cyclists among us who will forever be the quality controllers: unconcerned with mileage, average speed and power output, and uninterested in the public free-for-all that is Strava – they exist only to extract the maximum amount of quality time from every bike ride. I’m certainly a man who appreciates that a beautiful country lane is more than just a chance to compete in the virtual world with a bunch of strangers, but if I’m honest I still can’t help myself.
When it comes to my own personal Strava stats, however, I have at least made a compromise: I’ve made a conscious decision not to measure things like power output, heart rate, cadence, or any other on-the-go parameter which might distract me, to the point where every bike ride becomes less about the riding of a bike down a beautiful country lane, and more an analysis of my (admittedly fairly average) physiology.
So where do those “lies, damned lies, and statistics” come into all this?
Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that beneath the shiny orange Strava branded veneer of a virtual level playing field, those leader-boards are surely equal parts athletic prowess, and prevailing wind conditions.
To put it another way; here in the north of Lancashire there are a huge number of very quick cyclists who push most of the top 10’s on a Strava leader-board beyond my grasp (I’ll settle for top 10%), but on the right day and with a 25mph tailwind…
No-one will ever know. It’s just “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”