It is something so simple, so fundamental, to how we process information, how we judge its validity and how we propagate both fact and misinformation online that we do not think of it as technological at all … but it is. We use it all the time to support our arguments and to tear down others. Our leaders cite it ad nauseam. It is held up in the form of bogus “studies” that frequently purport to use “science” in condemning or marginalizing conservatives and libertarians. It is almost always made up on the spot, or heavily distorted, when used to support civilian firearms disarmament – euphemistically called “gun control” by Democrats and liberals.
It is the mathematics of statistics.
Some years ago there was a radio talk-show debate that underscored the libs’ misuse of statistics. Specifically, it highlighted in its rhetoric the understanding of statistics that most people lack. This issue is important, as we’ve just said, because statistics are used, misused, abused and prostituted to justify and garner support for political causes. Among those are laws and bills pertaining to almost every facet of human liberty. Everything you do, say, own and think is the subject of some attempt by the libs to control it, to regulate it, to confiscate it, to restrict it.
Pleas to the common good are almost always supported by statistics to this end. The idea is a simple one: By throwing distorted math at an issue, by appealing to an authority (in this case, “SCIENCE!” or “MATH!” or even “BECAUSE DOCTORS!”), one can make people believe almost anything. That is, if those people don’t grasp how statistics work.
You’ve heard the phrase, “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” Adopting this attitude is just as bad as being fooled by distorted statistical propaganda. This is because such a phrase attempts to dismiss ALL statistics as lies, when this is not the case. You’ve seen this in every political argument you’ve ever had with a Democrat, a progressive, a liberal of any stripe: They will cite statistics they believe support their opinion. You will provide facts that disprove their claim and possibly provide statistics of your own. They will then declare that “statistics can be made to prove anything,” transforming a debate about facts into an argument about opinion.
Let’s get back to the radio debate mentioned earlier. Citing a then-recent study, one participant in the argument claimed that drivers of mid-sized sport utility vehicles (SUVs) were “nine times more likely to die” (from rollover accidents) than drivers of passenger cars. Over and over again, this woman repeated the statement, “You’re nine times more likely to die if you drive one of these SUVs. Nine times!”
Her opponents countered weakly that the study was “nonsense” and that, intuitively, drivers are safer when in larger vehicles. They pronounced it absurd that our government “wants to make the bigger vehicles less safe to make everyone die equally.”
The flaw in the entire argument, and which none of the participants could see, is readily apparent to anyone who understands statistics: The traffic data analyzed was a list of all automobile fatalities for a given period. Think about that. All the accidents were fatal. This means that to gain a realistic appreciation for your odds of suffering a terminal vehicular accident, you must examine all traffic accidents that did not end in death and figure that into your calculations. You must ask yourself, “If I am in an accident of any kind, what are my chances of being killed? How many accidents did not end in death for drivers of SUVs versus how many did?” Only then can you say with any confidence what might be your “chances of dying” relative to drivers of passenger cars.
The same “reasoning” was used in one of those famous “studies” that is now accepted as folklore truth among firearms prohibitionists. The figures cited vary, but usually conclude with the dire pronouncement, “A gun in your home is X times more likely to kill a family member than someone else,” or “If you own a gun, your chances of being killed increase by X times.” That study has been thoroughly discredited because of the way its sample was taken: The researches never bothered to factor in any kind of control group.
The data instead were taken from an analysis of gun-owner homes in which a violent act occurred. The missing context? All the homes occupied by law-abiding gun owners in which no violence occurred have been excluded from consideration, resulting in a distorted perception of the probabilities involved. To truly know your chances of experiencing harm as a gun owner, you must examine a representative sample of gun owners to extrapolate your own chances. You cannot simply look at only those homes in which the result (for which the propagandists are searching) has already happened.
Whenever confronted with a given study or set of statistics, ask yourself the following questions: How was the sample taken? How large was it? Was it taken randomly? Is it representative of the population, or is it skewed? Was important context omitted? How logical are the conclusions drawn?
Using the flawed statistical methodology of propagandists, we could calculate your chances of being killed by mortar fire by examining those Third World nations in which wars are occurring at this time. Of course, if you live in a nation in which war is not occurring, but we excluded nations like that from our study, our statistics are meaningless and skewed.
Statistics are not hard to interpret if you have the relevant details of how they were produced. Anyone who can’t or won’t provide references for those details is lax – or hiding something. Do not, however, simply give up and proclaim that all statistics are meaningless. In context, statistics are relatively difficult to distort.
Do not accept at face value the statistical slogans people throw at you in supporting their opinions. Demand the sampling context and apply logic to each scenario. Be mindful of this when using statistics yourself.
Do so and you will have a powerful and persuasive tool at your disposal.