Friday, May 20, 2016

1643a Statistically Correct

It was 1954.  A newsman named Darrell Huff put out a book that should have rattled us.  It was called “How to Lie with Statistics.”  By all accounts, Huff lacked the mathematical muscle to reconcile his checkbook, but he hit upon an idea, an earth shaking idea, that should have changed the world, but didn’t.


He never identified the idea in layman’s terms.  So here it is:  Wrap anything in arithmetic and the unwitting and math phobic public will assume it’s true even if it isn’t.  Even if it’s completely outlandish.


Here are some examples:


--More doctors smoke camels than any other brand of cigarette.


--Trump is a few points ahead of Clinton in a presidential race that pits the two of them.


--The unemployment rate remained at 5% at latest count.


--Nate Silver can see the future.


We won’t try to debunk each of those likely falsities individually.  But the part about Silver is worth examination.


When we first ran into Nate, he was an uncannily  accurate predictor of the future based on Rocky Mountain size piles of data filtered through his website subsite, Five Thirty Eight.


At contract time, Silver and his employer couldn’t come to terms so he picked up his bat and glove and sold himself to ESPN, the sports cable network where he remains today.


And despite the height of the mountain, Silver and most others have mis read the mood of the data. Wait, data have mood?  No, of course not. But the public on which the data are based do.


Trump is a joke.  Trump is not a serious contender for the nomination.  Trump can’t win.  That was the early line on the bragging bully.  The later line:  Gee… he IS a serious contender.  And it sure does look like he’s winning the nomination.  For the record, the first of the early line statements remains true.


Well, the joke’s on us.  And if he’s elected president, no one’s going to be laughing.


The Republican regulars looked at that original data and promptly returned to the golf course.  The teabaggers looked at the original data and promptly returned to their Koch fueled “think” tanks to figure out more ways to make sure you turn into a plow horse with no time to spend in the think tank in your head.


Surprise!  


Figures lie.  Because people lie when counted on or counted up.


Now here it is late in the primary season and it looks like Hillary Clinton and Trump will be the contestants in the general election.  


That’s what the statistics say now.


Have you ever read the reporting data in a corporate annual report or an SEC filing?  “We had a great quarter.  We took in money hand over fist. We lead our industry in this and that.  

Then come the footnotes.  Tiny footnotes filled with numbers.  They add up to “that great year part only counts if you disregard these 19 things that screwed up.”


The top of the page calls for celebration. Those figures PROVE it.  


How about this one:  “A majority of patients got excellent results by taking Enteric Coated Super Mixolydian ® for heart valve disease.”  That can mean 49 percent didn’t. It also can mean 40% got excellent results, 20% had no opinion, 20% got bad results and 20% died after the first dose.)


Or this one: 63.8% of the people who read this will be unaffected by it and continue to believe EPA gas mileage stats, gross receipts for this weekend’s top box office hit and that the US economy is robust,  healthy and still growing.


I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2016

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