The Fluid “Truths” Of Statistics

Over the past half century we have, as I have pointed out before, increasingly turned over the management of our nation to credentialed experts. These experts direct virtually every aspect of our lives based on jargon-filled studies and massive data sets, which purport to show that all their recommendations and actions are in our best interests. To question their judgments is to question logic and reason itself—and will earn you a whomp on the head with the latest edition of The Journal of Unquestionable Truths.

However, as statisticians have known for a very long time, the problem with data is that it can be readily manipulated—and deceptively compiled, selectively presented, or entirely ignored—to “prove” whatever you might wish. This numerical black magic is a boon to politicians who need to either direct attention away from their own job performances or whoop up anger to win votes.

One well-worn way to conceal the truth is to use methods of measurement that define the problem away. The official U.S. unemployment rate is a fine example of this chicanery. In order to be considered unemployed, you must have actively sought employment—that is, applied for a job—during the previous four weeks, which does a wonderful job eliminating discouraged workers and those for whom no suitable job openings are presently available. Moreover, you are no longer considered unemployed if you work a single hour—yes, one hour!—during an entire week. Very few people can purchase food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare with just one hour of pay, so this seems like the cruelest gaming of the numbers imaginable.

It has been variously estimated that the actual unemployment rate would double—or even triple—if a more honest accounting of those driven out of the job market or unable to secure full-time work were used, but I would not hold my breath waiting for this day to come. Comforting half-truths boost the reelections of many incumbents and must be maintained.

Another handy trick for misleading the public is to present data without context in order to support a narrative that would be contradicted were the full story actually to be told. Given the national attention now being paid to the issue of fatal police shootings of African-Americans—which is a matter that should always be of the keenest possible concern—one would hope politicians would focus upon sober facts in order to avoid inflaming public opinion and causing unnecessary fear of the police, but this is unfortunately not always the case.

Most would probably be amazed that during 2017, the last full year for which statistics are available, less than 1000 people were killed by the police in the United States. Roughly a quarter of these cases involved civilians who were mentally ill, in only 7% of these cases was the person who was shot unarmed, almost a third were fleeing the police—and roughly twice as many whites as blacks were killed by the police that year. It must also must be noted, were one interested in facts, that 135 police officers died from duty-related causes during this same year.

Although the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the small subset of unarmed African-Americans killed by the police must be carefully reviewed for signs of incompetence, bias, or malfeasance—and the officers involved punished if this is the case—we should not be routinely and loudly characterizing police officers as wanton murderers and racists. The facts do not support these assertions. As is often the case, the truth is much more complex and frustrating, and simplistic and dubious mischaracterizations interfere with the core mission of law enforcement, which is to apprehend the accused and protect the public from criminals.

A final way to fudge statistics is both simple and startling: ignore them altogether. We see this method most visibly used when it comes to reporting on the academic outcomes of our nation’s K-12 public schools and the students who attend them. Even though voluminous data on academic progress and college/career readiness is readily available across the nation—and helpfully broken down by individual schools and school districts—think carefully about the coverage you see on a daily basis about the public schools in your area. Most of the stories focus upon charming human interest topics such as high school athletes triumphing over adversity, trips to petting zoos and museums, sweet middle school students raising money for charity, teachers attending conferences, principals engaging in goofy stunts to raise school spirit, or retirees reminiscing about their careers.

One would be hard-pressed to ascertain from the occasional dribble of actual data provided by the media that American public education performs very poorly overall—and at far greater expense—compared to other nations, American college students continue to flunk out at astonishing rates due to weak K-12 academic preparation, and public school teachers are abandoning the profession in droves due to problems with disrespect, threats, and violence from both students and their parents. Education reporting seems to have, in many cases, abandoned actual investigation and inquiry in favor of rewriting glowing press releases because criticizing public schools risks offending powerful constituencies that include local businesses, construction companies, real estate agents, and neighborhood organizations—all of whom have a stake in the illusion of successful local schools for reasons both personal and financial.

Numbers do matter, and we ignore troubling trends and ongoing problems at our own peril. The peculiar lack of national coverage concerning our mounting and terrifying public sector budget deficits and debts is a fine example of a looming and significant problem that is largely absent from our 24/7 news cycles. As much as we enjoy our daily diets of scandal, silliness, and celebrity gossip, perhaps—just as the regular consumption of sugary sweets eventually rots the teeth—the consumption of “news” that provides no complete or reliable data to support its dishonest assertions and wild accusations is contributing mightily to our horrifying and destructive civic rot.

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