Stick Child and his friends sometimes play a game where they take turns to throw dice and everyone tries to guess the number that will come up. It’s an enjoyable game, but the stick children know it’s just a bit of fun – even when one of them guesses the number correctly they know it’s luck, because when two dice are thrown, the total could be any number between two and twelve. None of the children really believe they had genuinely predicted the number, or that a particular number came up because of how the dice were thrown.
One day, Stick Child and his friends were playing the guessing game, when along walked Stick Cop. Now, the ‘Daily Stick’ newspaper may have you believe that most stick cops would treat what the children were doing as as ‘anti-social behaviour’, but really, most of us are not like that at all. Stick Cop just wanted to say hello to the children and make sure they were safe and enjoying themselves.
After Stick Cop had played a couple of rounds of the guessing game with the stick children, Stick Child told him about his ‘straight lines’ theory. Stick Cop thought it was fascinating because he could see how it applied to his line of work. You see, Stick Cop works with some really clever people called ‘The Stick Analysts’, and although they sound like a 1960s rock band, they are actually a group of very bright folk who understand numbers and use their knowledge to try and help their bosses make good decisions.
One of the things The Stick Analysts do is try to work out what might happen with things like crime rates. They throw lots of numbers into a big machine and it produces charts like the ones Stick Child draws. Sometimes the machine tells them that crime might be going up or down over time, and this makes it possible to predict (to an extent) where crime rates might be heading.
The Stick Analysts know, however, that accurate prediction is dependent upon on the overall crime rate trajectory remaining the same as it was at the point when they threw the numbers into the machine. Also, even if it continues to increase or decrease at exactly the same rate, even the cleverest of Stick Analysts could only say that the future crime rate could be anticipated to fall within a certain range. This is just like saying that the dice will produce a number somewhere between two and twelve on each throw.
Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is a Mystery Targets Monster gets hold of the good work done by The Stick Analysts and either swaps it for some unintelligible twoddle based on binary comparisons, or worse still, decides that it’s possible to choose one of those numbers somewhere within the predicted range and turns it into a target. This is because the Mystery Targets Monster refuses to listen to the experts and thinks it knows better.
The Mystery Targets Monster earned its ‘mysterious’ qualification at college because often no one seems to know who put the targets in, or why. It’s a very cunning, elusive, but fundamentally confused (and grubby) creature that exists in a fantasy world where evidence about the dysfunctional effects of numerical targets is countered by simply being ignored.
Anyway, once the Mystery Targets Monster has ruined the report that The Stick Analysts have produced, it emits a shrill girlish giggle then runs back to its secret lair. The report then goes to the big police bosses who try to do their best with what they’ve been given.
Meanwhile, the Mystery Targets Monster plays the dice guessing game by itself, becoming increasingly angry because its predicted number doesn’t come up every time, like it thinks it should. Whenever its predicted number fails to materialise, the Mystery Targets Monster goes out and roars unintelligibly at the first thing it sees, thinking that this will make the dice behave differently next time. It adopts the same approach with target setting, which of course is also a complete guessing game.
The Mystery Targets Monster just doesn’t get it at all.
Fortunately, Stick Child and his pals do. So do The Stick Analysts. And Stick Cop.
Hopefully you do too.