Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Whenever we write to persuade, we usually like to cite evidence. In fact, anyone who has gone through an English Comp class will recall that their professor insisted upon it. In our deeply polarized society, there are many strident voices making arguments from both sides of the political divide, and most people rely on their preconceived notions and “guts” to determine which side is right. That means that both sides are essentially preaching to their respective choirs and to people too lazy to think about what they are hearing.

Take a good, long, hard look at this nation, the problems we face, the leadership we have, and tell me that this thoughtless attitude by the public, an attitude fostered by our media and the political class, has done us any good whatsoever. So take that look, I’ll wait…

Still waiting…

Stepped out to have a Coke…

Now I am back…

Nothing? Didn’t think so. Let’s face it, we cannot afford to be this lazy or ignorant any longer, we cannot take things at face value any longer. We have to begin to think for ourselves again. For example, let us take a look at the hot-button issue of gun control.

If you were confronted with a statistic that told you that in a given year, almost 100,000 people are shot or killed with a gun (www.bradycampaign.org), your visceral reaction as a typical human being would be something like “That is terrible! Something must be done!” No argument there, it is terrible, something must be done. That is the reaction that the Brady Campaign would like you to have. Then they would like you to give them money to support their anti-gun efforts. If we were talking about 100,000 innocent people, then Brady would have a good argument. The problem is that we are not talking about 100,000 innocents.

According to the FBI, which does like to break down the big numbers into demographic components, we learn that the vast (and by vast, I mean overwhelming) majority of these shootings are related to drug crimes and gang activity among young males. In other words, it is bad guys shooting other bad guys, or cops shooting bad guys. Are there tragic shootings that fall outside any youthful drug or gang activity? Absolutely. There are accidents, suicides, there are other crimes, but if the gang and drug crime are eliminated from the statistics, the remaining shootings barely amount to anything (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Justice, www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs).

The problem is that both sides of this debate use the same statistics from the same sources and, depending on the emphasis they place on certain data, or fail to put onto other data, they can make the statistic demonstrate anything they want, whatever happens to coincide with their own position.

Mark Twain was right. When it comes to deceit, there indeed lies, damned lies, and statistics. If you rely on those—any of those—then you are lost. There is, however, a solution.

Do the unthinkable: Open your own eyes and look for yourself.

If you want to know which candidate has a better plan for your life, forget what they are saying to explain your current situation and use your own common sense. You pay too much for gasoline, so ask yourself what would most easily and simply lower those costs? Here is a hint, oil is a commodity, so the more there is, the less it costs. You want to know whether or not private gun ownership is a good idea or not, then look at places (stick to Western cultures where the issues are similar to your own unless you enjoy comparing apples to oranges) where guns are banned and see what happened. Great Britain and Australia come to mind at once, and both saw violent crime—rape, armed robbery, home invasion, etc.—rise dramatically.

Sure, it is all anecdotal, but it does get you thinking, it does make you question, and this day and age, those are two very good things to do!

Let me know what you think.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

  1. Excellent post.
    Unfortunately, many of us attempting to learn from a particular topic are left out with the polarized, no wait, biased choices that you have described.

    I made a post similar to this idea. It’s frustrating to be played by the interests at hand by both ends… seemingly no one cares about the actual topic but rather maintaining their interests.

    I try hard to seek information from investigative reporting media, but not everything is covered to my personal needs, so yes, as you say, gotta open your own eyes and make a decision… tough at times depending on the issue.

    • Forget the media, their only advantage–and that is long gone these days–was that they did the homework for you. Today the media is more about propaganda than honest reporting. If you want to know something, then you have to do the work yourself and have faith in what you decide.

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