On a recent episode of his excellent HBO satirical news show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver investigated the claim repeatedly made during the 2014 Miss America Pageant that it makes $45 million in scholarships available to its contestants every year, since, as Oliver explained, “That is an unbelievable amount of money—as in, I literally did not believe that.”
After the initial investigation of that unbelievable number via the taxes filed by the nonprofit Miss America Organization came up about $40 million short, Oliver called them. Their automated phone system greets you with the message: “Thank you for calling the Miss America Organization, the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women.” After a more extensive investigation, Oliver discovered that the key word is provider, which requires understanding how they calculate what they provide.
As Oliver explained, some schools offer scholarships directly to pageant contestants. The trick is Miss America counts all of them, not just the ones they can physically take. The best example was Troy University in Alabama, which is counted as providing $2,592,000 in scholarships. That number is calculated by multiplying the single $54,000 scholarship offered by 48, which is the total number of contestants for Miss Alabama that could have theoretically accepted the Troy University scholarship, even though in actuality only one of them could. Therefore, this should count as theoretically providing $54,000 in scholarships. Furthermore, since no contestant accepted, it should count as actually providing $0 in scholarships.
Oliver joked that his mock Miss Last Week Tonight Pageant is now the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women because it makes 400 million $1 scholarships available to the winner—of which she may choose only one.
Here’s the video of the full 15 minute segment that Oliver did on the Miss America Pageant. It’s worth watching in its entirety, but the scholarship aspect starts at 5 minutes 30 seconds:
In fairness, as Oliver reported, even though it awards far less than $45 million annually, the Miss America Organization is indeed the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women since it awards more scholarships to women than any other organization.
However, how the Miss America Organization presents the data that verifies that claim provides a good example of the challenge of data accuracy, which is best understood as a verifiable assertion.
For key performance metrics, such as scholarships provided, products sold, or revenue recognized, to be verifiable assertions, you must understand how the metrics are defined and calculated. Is scholarships provided the same thing as scholarships accepted? Does the calculation of products sold subtract the number of products returned? Is revenue recognized on the date of the sale or on the date that the sales invoice is paid in full?
Whether or not you are being misinformed by key performance metrics depends on understanding what information these metrics are intended to provide. Also remember that misinformation is not necessarily competing in the same beauty pageant as inaccurate data. In other words, accurate data is sometimes intentionally presented as misinformation.