A prime minister from Britain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The first is a fib, the second is an outright lie, and the latter is the use of numbers. I would like to talk about the latter, the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to prop up a weak argument.
So how do we know when their numbers are weak or when they match numbers with a turned phrase that makes it seem something that it isn’t? Here is a good example of something I heard recently.
But before going there, I feel that I must disclose. I actually have a background in this. I have a Ph.D. in Communication Research and Methodology. My dissertation was on the difference between using social science (statistical) methods for measuring communication vs. using bahaviorial science methods.
The following is over simplifying; but the first asks someone what they might do when they see or hear a certain message, while the latter counts their behaviors after they see or hear a certain message. I had to study both methods in order to write about the two different methodologies.
Most of my career was spent using public relations. I have a bachelor’s with an emphasis in public relations and a Ph.D. in communication research and methodology. Most of my career was spent lobbying before the Florida legislature.
So I have spent most of my life dealing with messages and numbers. I’m retired now, but I cannot help digging into the numbers when I see something that seems too good, too right or too wrong to be true.
Having said all this, though, I am not an expert. There are people out there with far more expertise in this area, but the training I did have makes me more likely to go digging into the numbers. One of the first places I look to is the terminology or the words they use to describe their numbers.
Here is a one good example and something I heard just recently. I went searching for answers, and several organizations gave me different parts of the puzzle.
Soon after the Oregon shootings, President Obama used statistics to prove his point when making his address to the nation; but when you dive deeper into what he said and the statistics used to back up his premise, it paints another picture from what you heard.
What he actually said was “the states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths”. That was interesting to me, because I had heard the opposite of this from other sources. So I went digging, and I found that both sides of the issue had taken parts of research in context to make their points.
First President Obama. Notice that he said gun deaths, not gun murders. When you dig a little deeper into the statistical information used to base this statement, you find that the CDC’s (Center for Disease Control) statistics on this include suicides, which make up 63% of all firearm deaths in the US.
The number also includes accidental discharges and legal interventions such as firearms used by our law enforcement agencies. This is a far different picture from what you thought you heard. For most of us there is difference between a person murdering people with a gun and someone who uses a gun on themselves.
As far as I’m concerned those numbers should have been teased out showing homicides only. Then we can get a better picture to compare with the recent shootings.
So I looked for this answer, but found that the statistics are inconclusive and confusing. Some states give their numbers as gun deaths, while others use gun murders. All of the states have very different gun laws, which cannot be compared easily in research.
On the other side of this issue are the pro-gun people. Presidential Candidate Carly Fiorina used a statement that said that states with the least stringent gun laws have the most gun murders, but I’m not sure which states she was talking about. I’m not sure where her numbers came from either.
The lesson to be learned from this is that statistics can be used to make almost any point. As Americans we need to be more selective in who we trust for our information. We also need to question their motives.
I know that this sounds self-contradictory, but in lobbying the most important thing I had to do was determine who I could trust and who I couldn’t. The entire process depended on information, and I needed to get my information from someone I could trust.
In other words it is the quality and reliability of the source that matters.