“If one goes through enough numbers, one will eventually come upon some statistics that seem to fit one’s vision,” economist Thomas Sowell says in “The Quest for Cosmic Justice.” “These are what might be called ‘Aha!’ statistics. Other statistics which suggest opposite conclusions bring no Aha! but are more likely to be glided over and forgotten.”
As Sowell aptly describes it, if you look hard enough, you can find statistics that support virtually any conclusion. With flawed methodologies ridden with omission, deception and malleable truths, a skilled presenter can make statistics say whatever they want.
The best way to illustrate this would be for me to quickly give an example of poor statistics usage. For example, the National Weather Service reported 20 lightning fatalities in 2019, 15 of which were men. These figures in mind, I could say that men are three times as likely as women to be fatally struck by lightning. Of course, lightning isn’t sentient, and I highly doubt that any force of nature is capable of sexism. If I tried to use this data to say that men were being oppressed by lightning strikes and to advocate for some sort of policy change in order to protect men from lightning fatalities, I’d be rightfully laughed at.
Although my lack of consideration for any alternative explanation in the lightning example would make any professional statistician burst out laughing, it’s hardly a laughing matter for the politicians that frequently use this line of logic. The manipulatable masses shouldn’t find it funny either. Far too often, people ignore the rules of empirical data when simple numbers seem to support their worldview.
Popular among the far-right is the assertion that African-Americans commit roughly half of America’s murders despite only making up a small fraction of the American population. This is absolutely ridiculous, and anybody that peddles the line is willfully ignorant at best, racist and/or manipulative at worst and no different from anyone who laments the sexism of lightning strikes. While the surface level assertion that blacks commit more crimes has both statistical backing and the support of washed-up billionaire politicians such as Michael Bloomberg, a collection of nominal figures that doesn’t control for income, education level or literally anything paints an incomplete picture; not all black people are alike. Any statistician will tell you that rival explanations can undermine simple comparisons. Any politician will ignore the statisticians in pursuit of their own agenda.
This deceptive manipulation of statistics performs better than the more obvious tactic of blatantly lying. This might have worked before the days of the Internet, but today, egregiously false political statements can be identified in minutes. Joe Biden can’t get away with claiming that 150 million people, roughly half of the United States population, have been murdered by firearms or that the Obama administration didn’t put kids in cages while there’s photo evidence to the contrary. Because of how easily they can now be debunked, these blatant lies aren’t as concerning to me as the deceptive use of technically correct data.
When Joe Biden claimed that 95% of the world’s consumers live “beyond our shores,” he wasn’t entirely wrong, but he uses a deceptively loose definition of the word “consumer.” The globalist Chamber of Commerce has used a similar figure to advocate for the expansion of international trade. The figure comes from world population data. Americans make up close to 5% of the world’s population (I’ll give Biden a pass on the rounding). However, to say that 95% of the world’s population is prosperous enough to purchase regularly from the American market is completely absurd; average incomes in a significant amount of countries are hardly enough for bare subsistence.
When statistics are technically correct, it becomes harder to detect their misuse. It doesn’t help that politicians and their supporters on both sides of the aisle frequently use bad statistics, sometimes knowingly, to prove their points. The age-old wisdom is to not believe everything we read on the Internet, but, as time passes, and as our political discourse grows uglier, I’d caution us not to believe anything we read at all. An individual who is uninformed is not much worse off than one who is misinformed; the Internet presents us with limitless opportunities to do our own research, and we should utilize them to the fullest to ensure that we’re properly informed.
Dev Chojar is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.