Daily Archives: February 22, 2016

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The media try to help everyone avoid facts that might interfere with their willingness to accept, without question, the latest sound bite. Combine these efforts with an overall lack of critical thinking skills and a lack of understanding of mathematics among the population and it’s little wonder that we are in the position we are today. With the possible exception of big pharmaceutical companies, no one understands this better than politicians.

Take the debate swirling around firearms, for example. It is rife with anecdotal stories and inaccurate generalizations that lead you to the conclusion that murder most foul is rampant. However, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, gun deaths grew from 6.6 per 100,000 people in 1981 to a high of 7.0 per 100,000 in 1993, then dropped to 3.6 per 100,000 people in 2010. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on the other hand, reported 10.6 per 100,000 people in 2010, which then dropped to 3.5 per 100,000 people in 2013. Although each group gathers their data differently, the conclusion is the same—deaths due to firearms are lower than 35 years ago. Interestingly, they’re at about the same level as deaths due to automobile accidents.

Then there’s the brouhaha over photo identification in order to vote. The purpose, to prevent voter fraud seems reasonable, as does the statement that you need a photo ID card to get a library card, etc. However, is voter fraud really a problem, and if so, how much of one? Figures are difficult to find, but according to NBC in 2012, “A new nationwide analysis of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 shows that while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent.” That’s quite a crime wave—about 172 alleged cases throughout the country, every single year. I’m not certain what other crime occurs at a similar rate—attempts to steal the Statue of Liberty?

Then there’s the arguments between Pro-Choice and Pro-Life (arranged in alphabetical order). The emotional issue that always comes to the forefront is that it would be wrong to deny abortions to victims of rape or incest. Is that a significant group? Needless to say, accurate statistics are difficult to find, but the most frequent numbers buried in the fine print are either “one percent” or “less than two percent.”

I am not attempting to sway your opinion or your vote. I am merely demonstrating how so many issues are presented in a manner so as to elicit an emotional response rather than a rational one. As Jethro Tull sang, “I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think.”

Think back to school when your math teacher deducted points from a test because, even though you had the correct answer, you didn’t show your work. The media has mastered the technique of not showing its work (and some might claim it’s on purpose). In many cases the media loves to report a percent, but rarely do they share the denominator. The number upon which the statistics are based.

What is a 50 percent increase? If you start with 100,000 a 50 percent increase leads to 150,000. Of course, if you start with two, you can claim a fifty percent increase if you get to three.

As the political ad barrage season begins, ask yourself:

  • Is this a significant issue?
  • Is this an issue that can be resolved, or is it an emotional issue?
  • Are those making claims telling “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

You may have to do a little research (Isn’t Google Wonderful?) to determine what the real facts are, but trust me—it’s worth it.