Can Numbers Lie?

How spin doctors manipulate mathematical evidence

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If you're the kind of person who can barely operate a calculator, you're not alone: According to John Allen Paulos, professor of mathematics at Temple University and author of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, most Americans are numerically ignorant. At the same time, we place great faith in the objectivity and truth of mathematical evidence. Most people rarely question the results of public opinion polls or statistical forecasts -- but we should. As Paulos points out, these numbers are routinely manipulated and misinterpreted by journalists and spin doctors.

You don't have to be an Einstein to get the gist of how this happens. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, 'mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas,' says Paulos. 'It is a way of thinking and questioning that's available to all of us.' Consider something as obvious -- but overlooked -- as poll wording. When the Yankelovich polling organization asked respondents the question 'Should laws be passed to eliminate all possibilities of special interests giving huge sums of money to candidates?' 80 percent of the sample said yes, and 17 percent said no. But when the same organization reposed the question as 'Should laws be passed to prohibit interest groups from contributing to campaigns, or do groups have the right to contribute to the candidate they support?' 40 percent said yes while 55 percent said no. Think about that the next time you read a public opinion poll.

The best way to arm yourself against statistics-laden reporting on health care, electoral politics, affirmative action, and other important issues is to invest in a subscription to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting's Extra!, a magazine where biases, distortions, and omissions in the news are routinely exposed. In the July/August issue, economist Doug Henwood takes on the myth of social security's imminent collapse by debunking the mainstream media's reliance on the 'usual statistics.' Henwood also crunches some numbers of his own, and comes up with a far less doomed picture. Hmmm. It may indeed be true that, as Time (March 20, 1995) reported, 'more people under the age of 35 believe in UFOs than in the prospect that Social Security will pay them benefits upon retirement,' but the real issue is why so few journalists are bothering to investigate the numerical claims that project the program's alleged insolvency.

Original to Utne Reader Online, September 1995.