Sunday, March 25, 2007

How to Lie With Statistics!

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This classic book, first published in 1954, was instrumental in a decision, over 20 years ago, to expand my college study from strictly business finance and statistics to include philosophy - particularly logic and critical thinking.

From the description at Amazon:

"There is terror in numbers," writes Darrell Huff in How to Lie with Statistics. And nowhere does this terror translate to blind acceptance of authority more than in the slippery world of averages, correlations, graphs, and trends” . . . The book remains relevant as a wake-up call for people unaccustomed to examining the endless flow of numbers pouring from Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and everywhere else someone has an axe to grind, a point to prove, or a product to sell. "The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify," warns Huff.

Here’s a good example – an article by Steven Thomma of McClatchy News Services, citing a statistical analysis of lifetime voting records and concluding that Barack Obama is “the most liberal” of the Congressional Democrats currently running for President in 2008.

“More liberal than Dennis Kucinich,” Thomma warns, going on to cite a bunch of percentages from past votes that serve to rank the candidates as follows, according to frequency of liberal votes:

Obama 84.3 %
Kucinich 79.4%
Dodd 79.2%
Clinton 78.8%
Biden 76.8%

To understand how this is absolute crap, consider that Obama was sworn in as a Senator on January 4, 2005. His entire congressional career has been spent voting only on the bills allowed to be brought to the floor by an extremist right-wing majority! So naturally he would be forced to take the more liberal side of those issues. Legislators with experience extending back to a time when Democrats could actually propose legislation have had opportunities to occasionally consider and make some more conservative votes (without threatening democracy as we know it!)

Clearly this article is intended to scare anyone who might be worried about "excessive liberalism" into writing off Obama. How sad to be Steven Thomma, working hard to build a career in journalism that finds him writing for a large and influential news organization like McClatchy, carefully crafting articles to be distributed under his byline so that his own mother can be proud of her son’s accomplishments – but to have an intended audience made up of people like this guy!

And I guess what this article really shows is that, based on the fact that Hillary Clinton was sworn in as a Senator on January 3, 2001, during the same period of Republican rule in the Senate, a lifetime voting record of 78.8% liberal votes suggests that she may actually be a conservative!

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