I’m sick of the meme in our politics and culture that statistics “can’t be trusted”. You hear it from both the right and the left. It’s not only factually incorrect, it contributes to a culture of stupidity.
“Poll results don’t tell you that much, because you can manipulate a poll to give you pretty much any results you want,” says some guest on Hardball last night. In some ways, it’s not his fault that he’s parroting this talking-point. It’s all over our culture, and it’s not even partisan: I hear people from all over the political spectrum complaining (when it suits them) that poll data can be deliberately twisted and biased and manipulated. People can manipulate the wording of a question to influence how people will answer, or can manipulate the way the results are reported to produce whatever impression they like.
These problems do exist. A higher percentage of people in this country believe that “abortion should be allowed in some circumstances” than describe themselves as “pro-choice”, even though some people would call these the same thing. A higher percentage of people in this country support each of the components that make up “Obamacare” than will say they support “Obamacare” itself. Wording matters, and subtle changes in wording can produce different results.
Similar problems exist in scientific measurements, as well. One group will say “The earth is cooling!” because they are measuring 10-year moving average annual mean temperatures in key locations on major landmasses, while another group will say “The earth is warming!” because they are measuring polar ocean temperatures. This kind of thing causes confusion and is a real problem that needs to be addressed.
So why am I complaining?
Because statistics never lie; people do.
Statistics are not the problem! The problem is the people who will construct a survey that asks one thing, and then report the result as if it means something else. The problem is people who will have complex and nuanced questions like “Do you think Obama could have done a better job on some issues?” and then will report the results with fireworks and bullhorns as “People disapprove of Obama!” The problem is when overly-eager news anchors say that Obama is ahead of Romney in the polls 48%-47% when the error margin on the polls is plus or minus 2%.
The numbers aren’t wrong. The people are reporting them wrong.
So when somebody declares haughtily on the television set or in a news opinion piece that “statistics can be manipulated to give you any result you want”, he is wrong. He is downright factually wrong.
The numbers aren’t being manipulated; the story about the numbers is being manipulated.
In other words: The statistics aren’t the problem; the guy describing what the statistics mean is the problem.
You might say, “Well, that’s a little nit-picking, isn’t it? What’s the big difference?”
When you get masses of people believing that “statistics cannot be trusted”, you are contributing to the decay of science in our culture. You are telling people: Do not trust scientific method. Do not trust numbers. Do not trust it when you see complex graphs that are the results of year-long studies published in scientific journals. Why? Because those are statistics… and everybody knows “statistics can’t be trusted”.
This is undermining science. And what happens when you undermine science? You get crap like this:
In these economic times the “failure” or “success” of any “financial crisis” comes not from numbers but humans. Ask yourself if you are making/taking home more money or even if you have a job?… Are your family, friends, or neighbors having a “financial crisis” or are they unemployed? Again numbers and stats can reveal anything – talk to others and you’ll find the real answer.
This is a comment that was left on an article on another website. It is a clear product of the “I don’t trust statistics!” mindset, and it is so stupid it hurts.
Really? You really think you can get a better idea about what’s going on in the country by asking a few of your neighbors?
If I judged all of Texas (much less the United States) by the neighborhood I live in, I’d think Texas was a deep blue state and mainly populated by gay men. You can’t come to conclusions about how the world works by asking a handful of people who live just outside your doorstep. That’s a deeply, deeply stupid mindset to have.
That is why we need to fight this meme, this trope, this “common wisdom” that is infecting our culture. It’s undermining rational analysis. It’s what leads to a culture of climate change deniers and creationists, and even you liberals are contributing to that when you spout the tired old line that you “don’t trust statistics”.
Every time you hear someone say “statistics can lie!” or “I don’t trust statistics!” you have to stand up. You have to stand up, and say: You are wrong. Statistics never lie. Statistics always correctly report the information that they are actually about.
Statistics always represent the truth about the thing they are measuring.
Your duty, as an observer, is to make sure you completely understand what they are really measuring.
Because if you don’t, then someone can lie to you about that.