This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Statistics: Fact or Truth?

Davila said that “statistics is the tool of those who give up understanding in order to manipulate.” When he said this, Davila had recognized that statistics, as form of propaganda, have come to wield too much power in public discourse.

Statistics, in a way, lead inevitably to fallacious thinking. This is because no single statistic carries any truth value in itself: it must be interpreted; and in order to properly interpret any statistic, we usually need a great many more statistics, as well as experience, reasoning skills, and objectivity.

The problem is that because all of those “interpretive” requirements happen in the background, usually without our even thinking about it, we forget that it is even occurring. Because the only part of the process we notice is the “fact,” we operate on the assumption that the fact “interprets itself.” We forget that a naked fact carries no truth with the interpretation, and multiple interpretations are always possible. And so we encounter two problems with statistics—two forms of deception: first, we forget that they always require interpretation; and second, we forget that in order to arrive at a valid interpretation, we usually need more data.

The following two case examples are drawn from modern political conversation, and they illustrate that this deception is used by both sides of the political war.

 Example 1: Planned Parenthood’s Budget

The scenario:

Planned Parenthood is accused by political opponents of being a significant provider of abortion services. Planned Parenthood responds by claiming that, of all the services they provide, only 3% are abortions.

The deception:

The statistic itself is true, but only when the calculations are performed in a certain way. Consider this: Planned Parenthood also administers pregnancy tests. A pregnancy test, as most people know, requires almost no time, no money, does not require a physician, and is minimally invasive. An abortion is a different matter entirely.

However, if we so desire, we can consider a pregnancy test as “1 service” and an abortion as “1 service.” This treats them as mathematically equal, even though no honest person would say they are equal in reality. If we do the math in this manner, Planned Parenthood can administer 97 pregnancy tests and 3 abortions in one hour, and then claim that only 3% of their services are abortions. This is true, mathematically. But realistically?—it is so misleading as to be an outright lie. It is a fact, but it hides the truth.

Example 2: The Tax Burden of the Rich

The scenario:

Politician X claims the wealthy pay a disproportionate and unjust amount of taxes to the government. In support of this claim, he explains that the wealthiest 1% of Americans pay a whopping 36% of the taxes. If we expand this to the top 10%, the group pays almost 70% of the taxes. These figures, it is implied, suggest massively unjust demands being made on rich. We are then told that the lower classes (the bottom 50%) are getting off easy, paying a scant 3.3%.

The deception:

Planned Parenthood was guilty of interpreting data in a misleading way. The politician above, on the other hand, is guilty of a partial presentation of data which, in the end, is equally dishonest because its sets up the listener for a conclusion that does not take into account the whole picture. To see why, we need to incorporate some supplementary data, thus acquiring all of the necessary points of reference.

In addition to the distribution of taxes, let’s also include the distribution of wealth. If we do this, then we see that the top 1% holds 35% of the wealth, and the top 10% holds about 70%.

What about the bottom 50% of Americans, who we are told are getting off easy by only paying some 3.3% of the taxes? Well, it happens that this group holds only 2.6% of the total wealth. So, if by “fair taxation” we mean that each person should pay an equal share of his income, or if we mean that each should pay taxes in proportion to the percentage of total wealth he controls, then it only makes sense that he who has much will pay much, and he who has almost nothing will pay almost nothing.

But these partisan debates do not really concern us here. The point is simply that statistics are, as we encounter them in the media and in popular politics, an instrument of propaganda. Like any other piece of information, they are only useful insofar as we truly understand their depth and are competent to interpret them in light of the whole picture, the relevant historical situation, and the present context. For most of us, this means that statistics are mostly useless and only serve to manipulate our conclusions by giving us the feeling of having based our decisions ‘on the data’.

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