This is not how statistics work

This was the weirdest (but maybe cleverest) line from Paul Ryan’s debate with Joe Biden:

“Do you know what the unemployment rate is in Scranton? […] It’s 10%. You know what it was when you guys came into office? 8.5% That’s how it’s going all around America.”

What a clearly intentionally misleading statement. That statement was aimed directly at, uh, underinformed people. Why not just pick one person who is unemployed and claim that the rate is 100%? We have real statistics for this data: unemployment has been declining and is ~7.8%.

This is really the bottom of the barrel for lying with statistics. I get frustrated when people say that statistics can be used for lies, therefore they don’t trust them. Yes, statistics can mislead, but it takes an uninformed/uninterested/uneducated listener to make that misdirection really work. (I don’t mean formal education, just lacking an ability to interpret statistics, understand things like correlation vs. causation, etc.)

This post has been edited to make it slightly less condescending. These things make me cranky.

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2 Responses to “This is not how statistics work”

  1. Chris says:

    I wrote a large comment to this and then reread what I wrote an hour later. It was condescending. The fact hat has been lost, but more importantly people can’t distinguish between truth, half truth, and lies. With the advent of all the ‘fact checkers’ it should be easy to know the truth, but sometimes they complicate things and sometimes people just aren’t motivated or interested in knowing the complete truth. Gullible? Ambivalent? Uneducated? Who knows.

  2. Peyton says:

    Not a big fan of this post.

    An informed, interested, educated listener doesn’t trust statistics. This individual knows that statistics are used to mislead and misdirect. It makes me happy when someone says that they “don’t trust statistics”, because it shows a healthy amount of skepticism.

    The job of civil servants is to educate/communicate their plans and policies to the public. Because we live in a semi-democratic society, it is important that we have an educated public. However, one can’t reasonably expect the public to learn the ins and outs of tax, healthcare, deficit, foreign, contraceptive policies, etc..

    For example, I understand how to use a “Search Engine”, but I don’t know how to build one. Do you really think people should understand “correlation” and “causation”? Do you think more than 30% of the U.S. population even knows what those two words mean?

    I believe that people vote and react just as much on emotion/instinct (if not more) than they do reason. Paul Ryan’s comment was good politics. Sadly, good politics and good civil service don’t mesh — this is a big reason why we have a career civil service. Still, quality thinkers and good politics should mesh, and this ultimately, is our hope for society — though because it is so tied to capitalism, there are inherent pros and flaws… though the “Giving Pledge” gives me some hope that capitalism can be tied to a greater good as well… (I digress)…

    I understand your frustration, but get real, man. Societies have and always will be built by leaders. Obama is guilty of the same emotional ploys as Ryan… he made the “Let me talk about Peyton” reference in the debate; Clinton’s speech was so good, because it connected with people on a personal level; FoxNews is so successful, because it gets people riled up with the “doom and gloom” talk — sort of the “Jerry Springer” of news… And to be fair, whether it’s Obama’s fault or not (and I would argue not), perhaps most people in this country today do not feel that they are better off than they were ten years ago — and if Romney can harness that energy, well, he’s playing good politics — he’s being a good “political” leader.

    Frankly, I don’t know what Romney stands for, because he changes his rhetoric to fit his audience. But blaming this “gullible”, “ambivalent”, “uneducated” public is a “gullible”, “ambivalent”, and “uneducated” remark. Perhaps instead of blaming nameless stupid people, time would be better spent learning why people feel a certain way, and doing one’s best to sway these individuals toward a certain goal. We have a system based on the “common wisdom” of the people. With the hundreds of millions these candidates have; and the oligarchies behind each of their campaigns; I think the responsibility ultimately rests at the top — win or lose.


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