Lies And How Statistics Are Used To Support Them

As Mark Twain once said “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” For quite a long time I've known statistics can be manipulated to prove or disprove any claim. I was reminded of this truth when I came across an editorial covering the very topic of Twain's quote while perusing an industry publication.

What do the issues of so-called Climate Change, Intelligent Design, Cold Fusion, and Gun Control have in common? Answer: Ignorance.

I think Twain meant that certain people can force both correlated and uncorrelated data to support any conclusion that they wish to draw. But the scientific method for analysis and synthesis depends on logic (common sense?), facts, and accurate and reliable data. Unfortunately, many non-technical savvy people (and some technical people) tend to fall into a trap set by the purveyors of false information (sometimes mixed with a little truth) to convince you of their agenda. Every day, as human beings, we have to resist the temptation to force relationships and draw conclusions among false or unrelated sets of data, which could lead to making some disastrous decisions. Our conclusions seem to naturally lean more toward intuition or emotion (not always reliable), personal biases, and false data correlation rather than on facts and first-hand observations.

I first became aware how statistics could be manipulated when the universally hated National Maximum Speed Limit was imposed on American motorists back in the 1970's. The proponents took two statistics, the speed limit imposed following the Arab Oil Embargo in late 1973 and a drop in the number of traffic fatalities, and drew the conclusion that lower traffic speeds equated to a lower number of traffic deaths. While it was absolutely true that there was a solid correlation between the two, it flew in the face of the old saying “Correlation does not imply causality.”

What the NMSL proponents overlooked (or chose to ignore) was there were other statistics that had far more of a bearing on the number of traffic deaths than the speed limit, in this case the number of people driving. If one added both the number of people driving and the traffic fatality rate (the number of deaths per 100 million passenger miles traveled), it could be shown the reason traffic deaths dropped was because there were less people driving. This was caused by a scarcity of fuel due to the oil embargo.

And so it is with a number of other 'causes' put forth by a host of special interest groups and political parties, including the aforementioned climate change, intelligent design, and gun control. Each group will quote statistics, statistics, and more statistics as if that's the only thing needed to prove their claims. They carefully ignore, bury, or minimize statistics that contradict their cause even though they may be far more telling than the ones they've used to sway the public.

One of my recent favorites was used by the World Wildlife Foundation in a TV ad trying to convince us the polar bear populations are endangered and have been declining for decades because of global warming. Because of that there's been a push to put the polar bear on the Endangered Species List. What they don't bother to tell anyone is that there are now five times more polar bears than there were 40 years ago, meaning the populations hasn't been declining but increasing.

Gun control advocates are another group thoroughly versed in using statistics to lie to the public. They'll quote the number of gun deaths and the number of guns in the hands of American citizens as if that's the only thing needed to prove their point. But what they don't tell you is that most of those gun related deaths were either committed by criminals using guns they weren't legally supposed to have in the first place (usually illegally obtained) or by citizens legally defending themselves against criminals attempting to harm or kill them or family members. Never mind that if gun ownership were banned, the criminals would still have guns.

I could go on and on, but I'm sure you get the point. Whenever you hear someone quoting statistics that prove their point, remember to be skeptical and check out their figures for yourself. You may find you've been lied to.

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