Is your crap detector working?
Statistics tell us what’s happening in the world around us—from weather forecasts, to crime rates, to baseball rankings.
Yet, with so much fake news sloshing around, we often fail to realize how easily statistics can lead us astray.
Lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Some statistics turn out to be wrong, but more commonly they mislead. We have difficulty recognizing this because numbers appear objective and apolitical. In How to Lie and Cheat with Statistics, the most popular book on statistics ever sold (first published in 1954), author Darrell Huff warns “The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify. It’s not the statistics which are in question—it’s how they’re used.”
What they know that you don’t.
The average Jane or Joe doesn’t know how to properly evaluate and interpret statistics, putting them at a disadvantage. For example, a Congresswoman cites a statistic to back up her argument; a news analyst uses another fact to refute it; and a guest economist references a third to prove them both wrong. Who do we believe? Typically we favor the one who confirms our existing values, beliefs, or assumptions (see: What the Bleep! happened?).
Why should you care? According to economist John Williams (2013), the federal government manipulates not only the methods it uses to calculate its “official” statistics (e.g., cost of living, unemployment, and inflation figures), but fudges some of the data to produce the desired results. Why do they do that? Transfer payments (such as Social Security, welfare checks, and student grants) are indexed to the figures, so lower statistics means Uncle Sam pays less moolah to recipients.
Do you smell a rat?
Here are some questions to ask when someone provides statistics in support of their point of view:
Nullius in verba.*
Statistics are easily manipulated, massaged, and misstated. Even when correct, they can be misleading; for example, on average, humans have one testicle (think about it…). Worse yet, if bogus statistical information is repeated often enough, it eventually is considered to be true. So NeXters, here’s how you can buffer the BS tsunami:
* Nullius in verba (Latin for “Take nobody’s word for it”) is the motto of The Royal Society, founded by King Charles II in 1660 to promote the advancement of science.
If you want to inspire confidence, give plenty of statistics. It does not matter that they
should be accurate, or even intelligible, as long as there is enough of them.
~ Lewis Carroll, author
** Questionable beliefs can “trap” our better judgment, leading to poor decisions and unintended consequences. In the framing trap, we often underappreciate how significantly others shape our opinions and desires. Learn more about this, and other interesting topics, in the Young Person’s Guide to Wisdom, Power, and Life Success.