Lying with Statistics:

AKA Data Analysis Gone Wrong


Let's start with this example: Maybe you saw the following (it was all over the internet in August 2013)

And now it's global COOLING! Record return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 60% in a year.Almost a million more square miles of ocean covered with ice than in 2012



First, this statistic is correct.  The Arctic ice cap did grow 60%, which was indeed almost a million square miles.  But this says NOTHING about possible global cooling, AND it conveys the wrong impression.  Here's why:


1. This is "Cherry Picked" data.  What they did was take the measure of the ice cap at a specific point in time, namely that point in time when it had reached it's highest level.


2. They left out the fact that the ice cap melts and refreezes each year.  So, of course, climatologists would expect it to increase.  The question is not how much it increased but how much it increased in comparison to other years.  It didn't increase as much in 2012 as it did in 2013, but that does not mean it is NOT smaller than it used to be.  Here is the appropriate comparison graph that makes this point:


From this you can see that, while the ice cap became smaller in 2012 than in 2013, in 2013 it is still a good bit smaller than it has been on average for the past 31 years.  Some might say that this does support the notion of polar ice melt due to global warming, but NO ONE (except someone wanting to mislead, perhaps even lie using statistics) can say it supports the notion of global cooling.

3. Always question data provided in percentages.  The quickest way we can explain this is with the following example:

Imagine you have a 10 pound bag of sand.

You pour out 5 pounds (half) thereby reducing the bag's weight by 50%

You increase the bag's weight by 50% (half of 5 pounds is 2.5 pounds, so that's how much sand you put back in), bringing the bag's weight up to 7.5 pounds.

The point: Even though you decreased the weight of the bag by 50%, then increased the weight of the bag by 50%, it is still 25% lighter than its heaviest weight.


Here's another example of misleading data presentation (taken from 1937 data).

Hmmm, looks like a sudden and VERY BIG increase in government pay roll, right?

The graph above is actually accurate, as is the one below, BUT it doesn't have a zero point.

Here's what it looks like with a zero point:

Another example of the above:

So if you were investing in the stock market, which of these two stocks would you buy, stock A or stock B?

Well, as you no doubt have guessed, they're both the same stock.  The graph for Stock "A" has no zero point.


Yet another example: How many people are unemployed?  95 million?


Have you seen the various numbers that have been bandied about on the internet?  The highest we've seen (as of December 2016) is about 95 million.  While this total is based on actual, verifiable data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) it is misleading (which is why we've included it on our Lying with Statistics page).


So here's the deal, while population data shows that around 95 million are not employed, that number includes lots of people who likely aren’t looking for work. It includes every American of retirement age -- 65 and older. It includes every high-school student at least 16 years of age. It includes every college and many graduate or professional-school students currently enrolled and in classes. It includes every person who has a disability that makes it impossible for them to work. It includes parents who are choosing to stay home to take care of their kids. It includes every adult who’s gone back to school full-time. It even includes trust-fund kids who are living off investments.   While the following is from 2014, here's a graph that shows




A final (for now) example (using made up names):

Perhaps you've seen ads on TV telling how online dating service "Meet Your Mate" has the most dates and marriages.

So, okay, let's say that this is true.  "Meet Your Mate" does indeed have the most dates and marriages of ALL online dating services. 

But what they left out is the fact that it is also the OLDEST such online service, having been online twice as long as any other such service.  So OF COURSE it has the MOST in all categories.

What's wrong?  The RATE is more important than the total.  What matters his how many out of those who visit the site.  In our hypothetical example, it turns out that "Find Your Partner" has a much higher rate of dates and marriages than "Meet Your Mate," because one out of ten make dates and one out of a hundred get married, compared to one out of fifteen and one out of one hundred and fifty for "Meet Your Mate."

No doubt you've heard it said, "Statistics don't lie.  People lie using statistics."  That's what we're going to explore here: Just how does this occur? 

We think that sometimes it's by accident, but sometimes it's on purpose. 

So we want to examine the ways to tell whether data collection, reporting and analysis can be valid, or invalid (i.e., legit, or not legit).

1. The primary tool for all reality checking is critical thinking.  It is so important that we've devoted a whole article to it.  So we're not going to repeat it here.  We're just going to tell you to use it.

2.  Always check to see how much detail is provided, especially in terms of size of samples and the breakdown (subsamples).  For example, saying that a survey shows 50% of the public approve, or disapprove something is nearly useless.  We need to know who was asked (e.g., ages, ethnic background, etc.), how many were asked (sample size), and what the actual questions were asked.  All these details can make a tremendous difference in what the data means.

3.  Remember that the data (or statistics) may be valid, but if they are cherry-picked, they can be useless.

4.  Remember that even if every aspect of the research methodology and data reporting is valid, the interpretation of the conclusions are always theoretical and thus debatable.  Try to think of alternate conclusions that might be drawn from the date.

5.  Do a search to see if there are alternate analyses and conclusions and apply critical thinking to them as well.

6.  Finally, if you know anything about research methodology and the rules for validity, apply them.  If not, you can check for them online. 

 To read about critical thinking.

 To see an online search concerning research methodology (will open in new tab, or window)

 To go to the brief introduction to intentional efforts to obstruct, or avoid reality

 To go to the Articles Page

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