Lies, damn lies, and facts

“The facts speak for themselves”, they say. But do they really, or are we just hearing what we think they’re saying? Maybe conclusions and decisions “supported by facts” are not necessarily as robust as we like to think.

Koen Smets
7 min readOct 6, 2023

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The other day, a couple of interesting tweets zoomed through my timeline. The first one contained several images of newspaper headlines to the effect that millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) are having so few children because they cannot afford to. The second one simply listed some apparently related data: the average earnings per year, and the birth rate (per couple) for two neighbouring countries, South Korea and North Korea. Average annual earnings for South Korea were $31,489, and its birth rate was 0.92; for North Korea, average earnings per annum were $1,288 and the birth rate was 1.90. My immediate and unguarded reaction was predictable: can an average South Korean couple on that kind of income really not afford, on average, to have even a full child between them, if their North Korean counterparts can have twice as many on roughly 4% of their income?

Thankfully, that response didn’t hold for long. Scepticism crept in: was that really what the facts told me, or was it just what I was led to believe? The facts themselves looked kosher: income would generally seem to be a good indicator of purchasing power, and the birth rate is a good measure for the number of children people have. Sure, ‘ birth rate’ normally refers to the number of live births per 1,000 population, and this figure presumably related to the number of children born per woman, but that does not materially change the facts. Perhaps the North Koreans’ income was not adjusted for purchasing parity power, but if the point is that they are much poorer than their southern estranged brethren, it seemed reasonable to let that pass, too. (I have since checked the numbers, and both the South Korean and the North Korean income would appear to be close enough to the cited figures for jazz.) Even though we are making an important assumption here — that…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius