Can Numbers Lie?

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.

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