You may never want to live in New York City, but let’s pretend you do, and let’s pretend, much to my chagrin, that I am a real estate agent.
While showing you around the big apple I casually slip in that the average income here is only $34,386. Naturally, this excites you.
You pull the trigger.
Four months later while talking with our Brooklyn hipster friends — yes, you became friends with your realtor — in their loft, I mention that the city is so expensive, after all the average income is $107,000.
Back then, I lied. I must have.
Except I didn’t.
I used averages: the median to make the number lower, and the mean to go higher. If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.
This is the nature of lying with statistics — and currently it is polluting our marketing, journalism, politics and business.
Lies, Damned lies, and Statistics
“The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify. Statistical methods and statistical terms are necessary in reporting the mass data of social and economic trends, business conditions, “opinion” polls, the census. But without writers whose words with honesty and understanding and readers who know what they mean, the result can only be semantic nonsense.”
— Darrell Huff, journalist
Bias is the perpetual enemy of truth.
And it is often an unconscious bias that permeates how we think, the words we use, and the stats we share.
Ask yourself, then, how is it that statisticians get a random polling sample? They go out into the streets — and bias against stay-at-homes. They go from door to door and miss out on employed people. They come in the evening and miss out on 20-somethings getting jiggy with it in the club (is that what the kids say these days?).
The job of pollsters and statisticians is to eliminate as much noise as possible by getting unbiased samples — and, ostensibly, the job of journalists and politicians is to reveal the potential flaws in this data.
The devil is truly in the details — and we must be aware of it.
For example, some years ago, during WWII, the National Opinion Research Center sent out two staff teams of black and white interviewers to ask three questions to African-Americans in a southern U.S. town.
One question was, “Would blacks be treated worse here if the Japanese conquered the U.S.A.?” Black interviewers reported nine percent said “better,” while white interviewers said only two percent had such a response. And when asked if the Japanese would treat them “worse” black interviewers found twenty-five percent agreed while white interviewers got a forty-five percent response.
The point here: often we tell pollsters what they want to hear. The 2022 midterms and 2016 elections were both recent examples of this.
Corporate America uses statistics to lie to you, too.
In 2007, toothpaste company Colgate ran an ad stating that 80% of dentists recommend their product. How did they come to that conclusion? They asked dentists to write down many kinds of toothpaste they recommended, and Colgate happened to be on that list.
At times, pollsters and statisticians have nothing but the best intentions.
But if we don’t press them to use the most precise and balanced methods, we risk falling prey to lies and bad statistics.
The House Always Wins
Entire industries are built on misleading you with statistics.
It is called casinos and the lottery.
“My number is due,” you might say.
No, it is not due. The laws of probability dictate that the house always has an advantage.
Some years back Neil deGrasse Tyson went to Las Vegas for an annual physicist conference. 4000 physicists. One night in Vegas. One week later, there was a headline in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Physicists in town, lowest casino take ever.” Physicists were told never to return to Vegas.
Knowledge of statistics can save you like a fire extinguisher can save your house. Ironically enough, in state lotteries, most of that tax money goes to education.
It is ironic because a class solely about probability and statistics is not taught in primary school; it is an elective — and is not taught outright until college. Neil has a conspiracy theory about this… take it with a grain of salt:
“It is a little suspicious that the very knowledge of math that would undermine the ability of the state lottery to make money is not a required part of the curriculum from k-12.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson
‘Gun Violence’ and Statistics
“I am against gun violence.”
Oh, I like the sound of that. It sounds nice, it sounds electable.
It is why so many politicians say it. However, it only sounds good until you look closely at the numbers for “gun violence.”
Suicides account for over half of gun violence (54%) — and to hold myself accountable, that number is from the CDC.
America, however, doesn’t lead the world in suicides predominantly because suicide isn’t a gun thing; it is by many accounts a mental health thing yet is counted as “gun violence.”
The number you want to look for is the homicide rate of 43%. Yet that number doesn’t include police shootings (justified and unjustified) which make up a small percentage (5% or less) and accidental gun deaths.
Does America have a violence problem? Hell yes.
School shootings aren’t normal. A stand-up I saw the other night joked we should have school shooters vaccinate our kids. Dark. I know.
But let me say, I have no stake in the fight for or against gun rights… I don’t even own a gun; this is to show you that the data is opaque, especially for salient issues. Republicans do this too, of course, regarding the “culture war” or abortion or any of their talking points.
Read past the data. You must.
How to Talk Back to a Statistic
I tend to agree with Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky that every man and woman is responsible for every other man or woman in your town, in your country, and on the planet.
The survival of this country and the world is burdened on its citizens.
In that vein, information is power.
So here’s how you fight against lies, damned lies and bad statistics — according to Darrell Huff, author of “How to Lie With Statistics,” ask these five questions:
1. Who says so? The first thing to look for is bias. Is there a preference for favorable information over unfavorable? Is there an unconscious bias? For example, when analyzing the economy two years ago economists were joyous to look past cracks that have since become a full-on avalanche.
2. How do they know? A poll is a snapshot, not a forecast. If the poll isn’t large enough it may not have any significance. The larger the sample size, the more accurate and reliable the data. As a writer for Scientific American wrote, “How can a poll of only 1,004 Americans represent 260 million people?”
3. What’s missing? Many years ago the Boston Chamber of Commerce announced that of its sixteen female staff members they had a combined “sixty academic degrees and eighteen children.” It sounds peachy until you find out that two women had a full two-thirds of the degrees and children. Superwomen. I know. Also, be careful of any studies using “averages:” find out if it is a median or mean.
4. Did Somebody change the subject? Does the data represent what it’s supposed to? Watch out for any shifting of the goalposts by taking out a time period or leaving it in, or by changing the reference points.
5. Does it make sense? Statistics should be filed down to their basic meaning. No round numbers. No doublespeak. No bull jive. Look for clean transparent information that challenges itself like a self-reliant Socratic method. Statistics should be aphoristic in nature.
It came late, but “How to lie with statistics” is my favorite book of the year.
I find it funny that there is a Bill Gates quote on the cover. It tells me that rich and powerful people likely know that statistics shape the world around us and are manipulated, or they are already lying with statistics.
At the end of the day, be smart and think for yourself. Don’t fall for any banana peels that may be in your path.
“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” — Mark Twain
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