Sorting Out the Valid from the Lies

Too many news stories rely on assertion and rebuttal in place of analysis. It’s the inescapable weakness of our commitment to “both sides” even when one side promotes belief in a flat Earth.

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Brits are suffering serious buyers’ remorse after voting to leave the European Union.

There’s a lesson in this for Americans choosing between two dramatically different presidential candidates and their incompatible visions of the next four years.

Part of the successful “Leave” campaign was the manipulation of “statistics” to show angry older, whiter voters how they’d been had for years by their members of Parliament, too clever Europeans and floods of immigrants working on the cheap. 

Those voters embraced the numbers and message in an unimagined British rebellion against elites who naturally govern them. 

To a large degree, they’d been had. 

We risk the same outcome unless the news media find spine and expertise to challenge politicians’ partisan abuse of statistics in the coming election.

Too many news stories rely on assertion and rebuttal in place of analysis. It’s the inescapable weakness of our commitment to “both sides” even when one side promotes belief in a flat Earth.

Among the most commonly abused statistics are crime rates, employment/unemployment figures and when the Social Security trust fund supposedly will go broke. 

Why and how politicians and other public figures abuse numbers depends, in part, on motivation. In his post mortem, BBC journalist and economist Tim Harford makes a point I’ve tried to make, if slightly differently. I won’t call out some public official or figure for lying unless I know she or he knew the truth. 

Harford agrees, adding another explanation for statistics abuse: “bullshitting.” He defines bullshitting as the carefree disregard of whether a number is appropriate. 

It isn’t any different here. We get both — lies and bullshit — from public figures and officials. 

And it’s going to get worse as the presidential campaign intensifies. Compounding this affliction are down-ticket races. Members of Congress are trying to hold their gerrymandered districts, and Republican Sen. Rob Portman is doing his best to fend off Democratic former governor Ted Strickland. 

Few journalists understand statistics well enough to spot their abuse. It’s a failing that’s not limited to politics, and it explains why we are afflicted with so many stories about so many studies and surveys. 

Absent skepticism among the news media hearing politicians cite statistics, it’s our responsibility to sort out the valid from the bullshit or lies.

London’s Guardian offered a nine-point guide to spotting abuse of statistics. Guardian examples draw heavily on the U.K. fact-checkers at Full Fact and David Spiegelhalter, a professor of public understanding of risk at Cambridge University and president-elect of the Royal Statistical Society.

Talk about a Sisyphean task. 

But don’t leave. This guide was written for readers of a fine British daily and Statisticians don’t need it. Here are the common abuses:

• “Use a real number but change its meaning. There’s almost always some basis for numbers that get quoted, but it’s often rather different from what is claimed.”

• “Make the number look big but not too big. … Once numbers get large, say above 10 million, they all start seeming the same — all those extra zeros have diminishing emotional impact. Billions, schmillions, it’s just a Big Number.”

• “Casually imply causation from correlation.” A politician blamed thousands of deaths every year on U.K. hospitals lacking seven-day staffing. Recent studies confirmed higher death rates on weekends but showed no evidence that they were caused by weekend staffing levels.

• “Choose your definitions carefully.” A member of Parliament claimed, “2,500 fewer nurses in our National Health Service than in May 2010,” while on the same day (then-Prime Minister) David Cameron claimed, “Today, actually, there are new figures out on the NHS. … there are 3,000 more nurses under this government.” The guide said both were right, depending on how you defined “nurse.” 

• “Use total numbers rather than proportions for whatever way suits your argument. … When it comes to employment, an increasing population means that the number of employed can go up even when the employment rate goes down.” Full Fact has shown how the political parties pick “whichever measure currently supports their argument.”

• “Don’t provide any relevant context.” When a Labour MP claimed “crime is going up” and police are reporting more violent and sexual offenses, he cited data no longer considered official because they were utterly unreliable. For the same period, the more reliable and official Crime Survey for England and Wales showed “a steady reduction in crime for more than 20 years, and no evidence of an increase in violent and sexual offenses last year.”

• “Exaggerate the importance of a possibly illusory change. Next time you hear a politician boasting that unemployment has dropped by 30,000 over the previous quarter, just remember that this is an estimate based on a survey. And that estimate has a margin of error of +/- 80,000, meaning that unemployment may well have gone down, but it may have gone up — the best we can say is that it hasn’t changed very much, but that hardly makes a speech. And to be fair, the politician probably has no idea that this is an estimate and not a head count.”

• “Prematurely announce the success of a policy initiative using unofficial selected data.” In June 2008, just a year after the start of the Tackling Knives Action Program (TKAP), the British government said “the number of teenagers admitted to hospital for knife or sharp instrument wounding in nine … police force areas fell by 27 percent according to new figures published today.” This used unchecked unofficial data against the explicit advice of official statisticians. The government got publicity, but the U.K. Statistics Authority accused the prime minister’s office  of making an announcement that was “corrosive of public trust in official statistics.” The final TKAP conclusion was that serious youth violence declined in the country, but no more in TKAP areas than elsewhere.

• “If all else fails, just make the numbers up.” Lastly, the guide turned to the U.S., saying, “Last November, Donald Trump tweeted a recycled image that included the claim that ‘Whites killed by blacks — 81 percent,’ citing ‘Crime Statistics Bureau – San Francisco.’ The U.S. fact-checking site Politifact identified this as completely fabricated — the ‘Bureau’ did not exist and the true figure is around 15 percent. When confronted with this, Trump shrugged and said, ‘Am I going to check every statistic?’ ” 

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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