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Data Don’t Lie… They Just Stretch the Truth

October 6, 2011

A graph caught my attention this week, both because of its provocative nature and because of its actual content.In fact, it struck me so much (and you’ll see why if you stay for show-and-tell) that I thought I would write about it instead of an article or book this week.

So I apologize if I end up sounding a little too preachy today. Also, please be aware that, while I have opinions about the actual issues addressed in the graph, it is just an example, and I am not trying to sway anyone’s political or religious leanings. You’ve been warned.

Welcome to storytime.

This is a fable about two people who liked numbers.

The first was a statistician who wanted to know more about the national debt. So she found some numbers about how it grew over the last 30 years or so and tried a bunch of ways to make them easier to understand.Eventually, she made some charts and put them up on the internet for people to ooh and ahh over. Then she forgot about them and got on with her number crunching. She decided the numbers needed a little more salt.

5s cut out of bread

Nomnomnom, needs salt!

The second was a progressive political organizer. Because he liked politics and spent 20 hours a day either at the local party headquarters or knocking on doors, with 24-hour news channels on in the background incessantly whenever he was indoors. He loved numbers, particularly when they showed that his candidates were ahead in the polls or that fundraising goals had been exceeded.

One day, the organizer stumbled upon the charts from the statistician and saw something he liked. Out of the collection, he spotted one he loved because, as previously mentioned, he liked numbers that made his candidates look good. Being a responsible organizer, he checked the reference and it checked out. The data was from the treasury department, and so he posted it on the organizational website and Facebook page and let the internet work its magic while he went back to watching the news and knocking on doors.

This is what the chart looked like:

Presidential Debt Increases

Simple story, open and closed. Republicans like to spend a lot more money than they make; Democrats kind of do but not so much. Here’s the thing. I spent 10 minutes with Calculator and Notepad (i.e. things you have access to or you couldn’t be reading this) and didn’t even have to look up any other data (like, say, the actual dollar values) to paint 2 very different pictures with the numbers. Then I spent another 10 minutes in Excel making the charts below to show you. It’s not hard, but it requires two things:

  1. Stop.
  2. Think for yourself.

Let’s tell the story a little differently than the organizer did, using the rest of the charts our imaginary statistician slaved over:

We’ll start simple, by just controlling for the number of years a president was in office. It makes sense that increasing the debt 100% (i.e. doubling it) in 8 years would be different than 4 (George H.W. Bush) or, say, 2 and change (Obama so far). This one’s not too bad and the story’s basically the same, except it doesn’t let the short-timers off the hook quite so much. But the story still seems to be that Democratic presidents do a better job than Republican ones at controlling deficits.

Now, look at the 3rd chart. Here, I just put it in terms of proportions of the national debt at the beginning of 1981. I didn’t have to look up actual dollar values, because I already had the percentages. So, for example, you can see that George W Bush actually increased the debt around four times as much as Reagan, because Reagan started with a smaller percentage of our country owned by, say, China and friends.

When you do this and frame it in terms of dollars, rather than the percentage of the debt they started with, the story itself looks very different. Now, there is a more definite pattern (a social scientist might call it a regression line or line of best fit after doing some math) of constantly increasing deficits over time with a small break (an outlier) during the Clinton administration. The practical implication could be that W and Obama are really the greatest culprits for our national debt, but also (if you think for a minute) that maybe there is a larger pattern that has nothing to do with the political party of the president at all but is a function of something else in how the U.S. political system functions.

Now tell me, when in the rash days of your youth, you ran up credit cards, which was more important: That the new Plasma-3D-rific TV was only 5% of your total debt (since you took out all those student loans) or that it was $2000 you had to pay back eventually at interest? While we may do the same kind of mental gymnastics to justify spending money we don’t have because “Really, what’s another dinner out or album on iTunes in the scheme of things?” that doesn’t somehow mitigate the absolute cost of what we’re doing. It generally makes it worse.

To be clear, I am not saying you should be pro- or anti- any particular party because of this. Both parties do it. It’s human nature, just like the organizer, to look for “statistics” that support what you already think.

You want proof? Search for websites justifying KJV-onlyism . It’s sometimes hard to find them because there are so many anti-KJV-only websites. Try this one for a start. In the third paragraph from the bottom, it makes an argument about the reading level of the KJV being lower (i.e. easier) than all other English translations. This person is even kind enough to say why: the words are short.

That’s it. That’s all the reading level is based on. Not the complexity of the sentences. Not the use of language that has either disappeared from English or has changed dramatically in meaning. Not that fact that, being word-for-word, it uses basically Hebrew and Greek grammar, not English.

And yet: that one test of reading level (by the way, the KJV tests harder on every other major scale of reading level) continues to be cited, especially in this 400th Anniversary year of the Authorized Version (KJV). Because it says what people want it to.

So the moral of the story today is this: PAY ATTENTION!

While the organizer may have accomplished his goal of making his party look good, and even done so with good intentions, it was only with spin. There is more than enough data in the world to justify whatever you happen to think, if you just search hard enough and spin it properly. If you actually care about the national debt, or the “decline” of liberal protestantism, or whatever it may be, stop and think about what you’re being fed. And if you can’t tell what the numbers actually mean, then don’t trust it and do not, under any circumstances, spew it forth just because somebody with a fancy job title said it.

This has been story-time with Nathaniel. And rant time with Nathaniel. Please tune in next week for more exciting morals and numbers and stuff. Thank you.

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From → Economics, Fables, U.S.

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