Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Of course, I am not suggesting that statistics are lies or damn lies but the way they can be, and frequently are, used to fool people is deceitful. Perhaps the best exponents of the art of pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes are those who themselves do not properly understand what the statistics mean – they draw false conclusions and confidently fool themselves - there’s nothing more convincing or reassuring than the person who blindly believes something and quotes what seems like hard maths to prove their point. Most people do not have a deep appreciation of statistics, maths, physics, chemistry or biology or general reality to spot the flaws that should ring bells loudly.

Here is a great cartoon which illustrates the problem.

 

cartoon credit – the excellent XKCD site

The confident statistics stickman in the cartoon has jumped to a false conclusion from the figures. The essence of his mistake is that the statistic he quotes relates to all Americans doing their normal activities for one year. Of these, 45 will get struck by lightning and die. He divides this number into the population of America and comes up with an extremely small chance of being struck by lightning in one year and then applies it to his current circumstances and confidently believes that the risk of “going on” is very small. This is incorrect.  The statistic he should have used is the one which defines how many people who walk around outside in violent thunderstorms get struck and killed. The cartoonist, for poetic licence reasons, quotes 1 in 6 to be the numbers he should have considered. Much more dangerous.

People do not seem to realise how easily they can be fooled by a skilled rhetorician, in a forum or debate, who may quote accurate figures but project IMHO entirely false or misleading ideas by using them. Examples of this type include Viscount Monkton of Brenchley, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck not to mention a huge number of politicians. Do these people realise when they are being misleading? Are they fools or are they liars or…?

 

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3 comments:

Go Kart Fan said...

I'd be interested to know what you make of this:

http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/meltdown_of_the_climate_consensus_G0kWdclUvwhVr6DYH6A4uJ

Nick Palmer said...

Hello Go KartFan.

This chap Matt Patterson, who wrote this oped piece, cannot be relied upon to give a fair presentation of the facts. He is a professional liar and distorter of the truth. He is exactly the type who thinks like the stupid stickman in the cartoon thinks - breathtakingly stupid, grossly ignorant and astonishingly arrogant. Either those or he is calculatedly evil.

He is editor of something called GreenWatch which is a publication of one of those ultra right wing American think tanks - the Capital Research Center - who are so responsible for promulgating lies and/or bullshit to prop up their political views.

This particular article is massively riddled throughout with gross misrepresentation, false reporting, false attribution of intent, false inferences. It's virtually all crap.

Here is a test for readers. If you think the (almost) linked to article, has any merit whatsoever, then you simply do not understand the situation. You do not have enough accurate knowledge to understand or take decisions about reality. You certainly have a highly distorted set of faculties which undoubtedly prevents you making valid, correct, reasonable or fair judgements. You are probably, if you have any power, a highly dangerous person who should not be allowed to put everybody else at risk.

Christopher said...

Hi Nick,

Just following up from my recent comment about your RSS feed being published to Before It's News.

I'm the Environment editor at Before It's News. Our site is a People Powered news platform with over 1,000,000 visits a month and growing fast.

We would be honored if we could republish your blog RSS feed in our Environment category. Our readers need to read what you have to say.

Syndicating to Before It's News is a terrific way spread the word and grow your audience. Many other organizations are using Before It's News to do just that. We can have your feed up and running in 24 hours. I just need you to reply with your permission to do so. Please include the full name and email of the person who will be attached to the account, and let me know the name you want on the account (most people have their name or their blog name).

You can also have any text and/or links you wish appended to the end or prepended to the beginning of each of your posts on Before It's News. Just email me the text and links that you want at the beginning and/or ending of each post. If you know html you can send me that. If not, just send me the text and a link to your site. It should be around 200 characters or less (not including links).

You can, if you like, create a custom feed for Before It's News that includes multiple links back to your blog or web site. We only require that RSS feeds include full stories, not partial stories. We don't censor or edit your work.


All the best,

Chris Holehouse
Editor, Before It's News
www.beforeitsnews.com
chris.h@beforeitsnews.com