To give you an example, over the years, I developed the perception that most disabled cars you see along the road are Chrysler products. A year ago I truly believed that the number of those brands abandoned by the side of the road would exceed all others put together. This perception became my reality to the extent that I was disinclined to buy Chrysler brands. But it proved to be far from the truth.
Starting on May 1, 2012, I began studiously recording every disabled car I observed in my daily travels. In each of our cars, I placed a small foam-board chart bearing rows of dots that could be punched with an attached stylus. The dots were grouped under five headings: Ford products, General Motors products, Chrysler products, European brands and Asian brands. Every time I observed a disabled vehicle, not counting accidents or flat tires, I punctured a dot in the appropriate category. (Actually, my wife did most of the punching. Updating a punch card while driving is a lot like texting and driving.)
Now, a whole year has passed and I have tallied the results: There were 13 Ford products, 40 General Motors products, 21 Chrysler products, 6 European examples and 15 Asian ones. Most assuredly, these results are not what I expected. First of all, the total number of disabled vehicles was far below what I thought I would see in an entire year. There were thousands of unused dots on my charts while only 95 drivers apparently experienced that sinking feeling that accompanies a car dying by the side of the road.
But more to the point, General Motors cars now appeared almost twice as likely to fail as Chrysler vehicles. Further, the venerated Asian brands seemed more than twice as undependable as the European ones. But before we cross GM and the Asian brands off my list, let’s see if we have really discovered truths or just a new quiver of misperceptions. GM enjoyed many decades of dominance in America, selling five brands of well-regarded automobiles. Later, they added five additional brands, meaning that GM sold far more cars than any other company. It stands to reason that we would see more GM cars waiting for wreckers to pick them up.
Also, most of us believe Asian cars have raised the bar on quality. Why did they show up so often when frequently-maligned European cars barely scored? Again, volumes sold could explain a lot. There are few European brands to be found any more. In fact, the vast majority of European cars sold here are either German luxury makes or Volkswagens – all of them considered to be well-engineered. But the Asian brands have been selling like hotcakes for several decades now. They, like General Motors, have sold oodles of cars. Naturally, we see a fair sprinkling of them along the side of the road. Further, if most Asian cars are as well made as their reputations suggest, perhaps they are driven further, harder, or longer – and still eventually fail.
Maybe this yearlong experiment has failed to provide any genuine truths about automotive dependability, but it has surely taught us something about truth-seeking: Truth is illusive, and even carefully collected and tabulated evidence can be misused or misleading. I worry a lot about the ever-shorter sound bites and sight bites from which we try to obtain usable truths. Just this morning I heard that a local news outlet requires $150 in support for every hour of broadcasting. Later, during the same fund drive, another volunteer stated that $250 will pay for a whole day of operation. One of those figures has to be wrong, or the statements about them inadequately explained.
We can really obtain some skewed data as the cost of maintaining independent sources escalates and more media try to repeat what they have heard elsewhere. Percentages of percentages are especially prone to misapplication. For instance, when a study shows that a certain percentage of women who suffer a specific form of cancer recover without recurrence when treated with a dramatic new protocol, many who try to repeat or interpret the news will mess it up. They may attach the impressive percentage to all women, or all women with cancer, missing entirely the important facts that only a certain type of cancer and a certain type of treatment yielded the figure quoted.
Regardless of correct or incorrect percentages, some information repeaters will do worse. If a reporter claims the impressive percentage without specifying “women,” the number of cases is incorrectly doubled. It is up to you, the news receiver, to notice that something about the report is untrue. Of course, we can never be entirely sure that we have heard and correctly interpreted the truth. But if we recognize the importance of careful listening, careful reading and critical evaluation, we will come much closer. Let’s make a practice of thinking through the information we encounter. After all, we use those factoids to decide our stance on issues and for whom we will vote. Our accuracy can have enormous consequences not only for us, and those around us, but also for the planet we all share.
By the way, two days after my auto breakdown study ended, in one short trip I spotted two Chrysler products disabled by the side of the road – less than one hundred yards apart. What am I to make of it? Should I do a second year of research? My wife says, “No!”