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Notes from Rio

By Marcello Collares, Fisher International

I have been watching the Olympics along with everyone else in Brazil and around the world. As announcers tally the successes of each nation’s athletes, I hear the same country names that we regularly associate with success in the paper industry. Recently I found myself running to my FisherSolveTM database to answer questions that popped into my head about pulp and paper production in various regions of the world. In the spirit of the Olympics (and because I suspect I’m not the only one in the industry with an inquiring impulse about paper), here are some data and statistics about the nexus of international accomplishments in Olympic medals and the paper industry.

The exercise is fun but it also makes a point about the difference between facts and statistics (which is the analysis and interpretation of the facts). Spoiler alert: facts are good things to base your life and business on; statistics, while often quite useful, can be manipulated and should be used with care. Here’s a light-hearted example:

As I write this article (August 12, 2016), the top three countries in the Olympics medal standings (by total number of medals won) are the USA, China, and Japan. Data ranking the world’s paper producers (Figs. 1 and 2) show the same three players.

 

Only a coincidence? The data are correct, but what about the correlation? You be the judge. Pushing it further, Argentina stands 32nd in the table of total medals won and, guess what: it ranks 28th among paper producers worldwide.

What about Russia—isn’t it always a sports winner? Well, Fig. 3 shows its position on the medal table and in the production of specialty papers since 2008. As you can see, Russia’s position in the medals ranking follows the trend in Specialties Paper production. If this correlation holds true, Russians can stay calm: the country will do better in the next Olympic Games!

A silly use of data? Yes, of course. Numbers can often be made to support any conclusion you want. As the saying goes, “If you torture the data enough, it will always confess.”

It is funny and sad at the same time, that such expressions voice how difficult it is to find the truth in this complex world of ours. Having built the richest database of the global pulp and paper industry, we at Fisher obviously believe that hard facts and data transparency are the foundation of good decision-making. There is no doubt that our businesses prosper when we get deeper insights; we all feel satisfied by the control we get from knowing more about our surroundings. What’s more, with a little analytic discipline, we might even learn to use the facts responsibly.

I’ll let Mark Twain make the critical point: “Facts are stubborn but statistics are pliable.” Or, as the girl from Ipanema might put it, “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

 

Marcello Collares is Fisher International’s senior consultant in Latin America. He can be reached at [email protected].

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