Dan Popp
By Dan Popp
July 8, 2013

Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum. – Old TV commercial

I knew I'd found an honest dentist when he told me that he was "the one-out-of-five." He explained, "After you've chewed the gum for awhile, the sugar is gone out of it and you're just cleaning your teeth." This is an illustration of how numbers are used as propaganda. We're presented with a (supposed) survey of (self-selected) experts, and we're supposed to fill in the unspoken "therefore": ...therefore sugarless gum is better for your teeth.

We the Sheeple are suckers for statistics. It's parroted that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As emotion-driven, mindless masses, we're supposed to infer that ("therefore") too many Americans are in jail. But this statistic doesn't tell us anything like that. First of all, some country must have the "highest" number of jailbirds, unless there's a tie for the top spot. If the US were to float off into space tomorrow, another country would then have the "highest incarceration rate in the world," and would be subject to all the outrage now aimed at America's justice system. No, probably not.

Second, if Country A imprisons more people than Country B, we don't know whether A is jailing too many, or B is confining too few. Perhaps A simply has a better law enforcement system; that is, B has the same crime rate but a worse police force, and the good citizens of B would love to have the incarceration rate of A. Or it could be that the government of Country B is corrupt, and only jails enemies of the administration; it lets robbers, rapists, illegal aliens, etc. roam free. Or it could even reflect the fact that Country A uses prison as the usual mode of punishment, while Country B uses beheading. There are many possible explanations for the statistic, but the datum that America has the highest rate of incarceration doesn't tell us anything about whether that level is "too high," "just right," or even "too low." To know that – that is, to arrive logically at the conclusion we were supposed to assume – we would have to sit down and think about what we expect our justice system to do. Whatever we want it to do, we probably won't determine its success or failure by comparing the numerical artifacts of that system with the artifacts of the systems of other nations having different ends in mind, not to mention different cultures and different resources.

As someone has well said, facts do not "speak for themselves." But they're often used as if they do.

A similar stat misused in a similar way is the "number of African American men in jail," compared to white men or other groups. The unspoken "therefore" is that there are too many black males in prison. If we were to start instead with the statistics on black-on-black crime, we might think that incarceration of African American men is too low. If the prison population doesn't look like the law-abiding population, that may be cause for an investigation – but it is not a substitute for an investigation. We can't draw any rational conclusions from that fact alone.

The same kind of garbage-spun-into-gold brings us the nugget that the US consumes 20% of the world's energy, though it contains only 5% of the world's people. Wow, people use energy unequally. Who knew? We're not supposed to ask the reason for that factoid. Joe may be burning 1 kilowatt-hour of power to run fountains in the desert for his own amusement, while Jim is processing vaccines with 10 kilowatt-hours of energy. Which is the bad guy, if anyone? The US may use more energy per capita because Americans are producing things of value for the rest of the world to enjoy, maybe even making drugs and medical technologies that will extend their lives – but America is evil because she is more productive? Again, note the unspoken "therefore," the non-reasoning for the purpose of exciting a gullible audience.

Conservatives fall for sheeptistics, too. We're told that President Obama is cutting the military budget. That sounds very bad. After all, the military is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, and all of the illegitimate functions are being expanded – not to mention that the world is a very dangerous place nowadays. But the starting reference-point (how much money is being spent today) is arbitrary and irrelevant. After we have the proper objectives in mind for our armed services, and after we've determined the amount of money it will take to achieve those objectives, then we can plug in the proposed number and see whether it's higher or lower than the desired number. Movement from the current number alone is no indicator of how well America will be able to defend herself in the coming years.

Then there are the bogus statistics that are repeated so often we get tired of fighting them: 50% of all marriages end in divorce, 1 in 6 are hungry. Lies. Tell the propagandist to cite sources or shut up. And finally there are those "statistics" that are nonsensical, like the number of Americans "not counted in the census," "jobs created or saved," and the Keynesian Multiplier that magically creates wealth by taking it from your pocket and putting it in someone else's pocket.

We have to rise up on our hind legs and do a better job of thinking. We must filter out the pretend science ("How racist are the Republicans for opposing government health care: [A] Very Racist, or [B] Extremely Racist?"), the non-science, the nonsense, the non sequiturs, the assumed conclusions, the comparisons to arbitrary data-points, the myths, the "too good to check," and much more.

If statistics prove anything, it's that 71.6% of Americans will believe any statement with a number in it.

© Dan Popp


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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