The Insight Debate: Words vs. Numbers

Image: NSF Consulting; Calvin and Hobbes

Moderator: Welcome to the first Insight Debate of 2017. We’ll be hearing from two distinguished purveyors of knowledge, Words and Numbers. I’m Professor Insight, your moderator. Let’s begin.

On my left, I’d like to introduce Words. Since the dawn of communication — and certainly since the dawn of written communication over 5000 years ago — words have been carrying meaning and insight to the world. Words comes to us today riding a new wave of Internet-driven success. More people are using and reading words than ever before.

[Applause]

On my right is Numbers. Numbers also has a long and distinguished history of delivering precise insights unavailable anywhere else. And as with words, insights from numbers are now spreading rapidly through online channels.

[Applause]

Now let’s begin. Numbers has won the coin toss and will make the first opening statement.

Numbers: Thank you, Professor Insight.

I’d like to start by asking the audience a simple question: what do you trust? When you’re trying to figure out the best choice for an airline flight, what do you check? Numbers. When you’re making the case to your boss that you need a raise, what do you cite? How your numbers have improved, and how your salary compares to other people in the industry. Numbers drive the world. They tell you how our nation is faring, how many people are out of work, and how many people are watching this debate. And numbers are precise. When I tell you that my introduction is one minute and 22 seconds long, you know exactly what you’re getting.

You’re about to hear how Words make everything better, smoother, and more emotional. That’s all well and good, but in this era, I think precision is at least as important as emotion. And for precision, you’re going to need numbers.

Moderator: Now let’s hear from Words.

Words: I’ll try to stay positive, but what you just heard is utter tripe.

Words are the fieldstone and mortar of the structures that make up our lives. Consider the fact that we not only communicate mostly in words — we think in words as well. Of course I’m using words to share insights with you right now . . . but didn’t Numbers just do the same thing? He didn’t just get up and say “27, 63, 12%, $1.63.” He used words to convince you. And that’s why words, and not numbers, are at the center of all insights.

Moderator: Thanks for a mostly civil set of opening statements. I’d like to hear from you about creation — what it takes to build insights using Words and Numbers. Since Numbers got the first opening statement, Words will begin this segment.

Words: There’s a reason that writing is part of all levels of curriculum from kindergarten through graduate school. Words are the way we all learn to deliver insight.

But let’s get personal here. Those of you who work a lot with words know that they’re an uncommonly protean medium. There are hundreds of thousands to choose from. They deliver all shades of meaning and you can combine them in endless combinations. That means that not only can you share the sweet experience of savoring the insights of Shakespeare or Chaucer; you can also create your own and know that no one else has read just that combination of words before. The sublime joy of entering a flow state and creating fluid writing has no comparison in the world of Numbers. Even amateurs can create incredible emotions and thoughts through words — and professionals can generate experiences that aren’t available in any other way.

Numbers: Typical soft-headed claptrap.

Words: I object! You can’t —

Moderator: Let her respond, please.

Numbers: Thank you, Professor Insight. Yes, any amateur can use words — and that’s the problem. In the hands of a professionals, numbers have no equal. (Sorry, little pun there.) And if Words thinks that only writing allows you to enter a flow state, he is wrong. Any engineer, scientist, mathematician, or statistician will tell you that the exploration of numbers and their patterns is the true path to the the purest insights — and that following that path is thrilling. You have Shakespeare; well, we have Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

While some of us don’t have the skill to become expert number manipulators, we all ought to have the skill to understand them. And I think the fact that experts generate the best numbers is a plus. Because numbers are real. Words can be fake. Think about it: every fake news story you’ve ever seen is a narrative of something that never happened. Words can easily be lies. And that is their ultimate weakness.

Words: That is a false distinction. Numbers are just as easy to fake as words. If I tell you that 73.6% of statistics are made up on the spot, that’s fake. And it’s a number.

I have a colleague who is really helpful to determining whether news is fake. Her name is Links. And with the help of Links, you can make it a lot easier to tell if words are true. The key is not just to use words or consume them, but to use or consume them responsibly.

Numbers: I don’t know you why you think Links is your secret weapon. I work with Links too. Links does just as much for me as she does for you.

Words: I think when it comes down to it, though, I have a tool that you’ll never match. It’s called emotion. Words can create an image in your mind. They can make you feel. They are warm and dramatic. Numbers are cold and unfeeling. You can’t have insight without emotion, and only words will get you there.

Numbers: You are so blind to the problem at the center of language. Emotion is false! Only statistics are real. You can tell a sad story about a poor family. I can tell you that 13.5% of Americans live in poverty, according to the census. That’s 43 million people. If you want a picture of suffering that you can trust, start with that.

And it’s time to tell the truth about words — they are inefficient. I can tell you a story in a single number. The federal deficit last year was $587 billion. That single number tells you about taxes, waste, and the state of our government. Numbers are efficient. Words spread sloppily. Numbers are an efficient apartment in Manhattan with everything in its place — words are a sprawling McMansion with dozens of unused rooms.

Words: Numbers are neither efficient nor sufficient. You cannot talk about the deficit without talking about interest rates, politics, changes in tax policy, and accounting. That means explaining things. And that takes words. Numbers without context are meaningless, and context demands words. You can’t stand alone, Numbers, admit it!

Numbers: I cannot stand alone. But neither can you. Text without numbers is just blather. Numbers provide your readers with an anchor point; something they can hang on to. Without some numbers sprinkled in among the words, they’re bland an unconvincing.

Moderator: So, you’re admitting that you need each other, then.

Numbers: I suppose.

Words: Umm, yes, words alone are ok, but I guess they’re better with some numbers.

Moderator: Can I get you guys to work together?

Numbers: Sure. I work with Words all the time. As long as you recognize that numbers are central to insight, words are fine.

Words: Well, the emphasis is wrong, but I have no problem working with Numbers. A few numbers make words more powerful. But you can’t have a narrative without words. And a narrative is where insight comes from.

Moderator: I’m glad we got that settled. And I think now our audience recognizes that they’re going to need to work with both of you. Thanks to Without Bullshit for sponsoring this debate. And please come back next time, when we’ll hear a completely different perspective from our guest, Pictures.

Words: A yes, Pictures, a good friend. A great complement to words.

Numbers: Yes, when we work together I like to call him Charts. And he’s a great fan of numbers.

Moderator: Enough already. Good night.

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