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Re: Shameful Math

Abe is right on regarding the tendentious BBC headline. But it is just one example of a very widespread problem in political journalism.

Mark Twain credited Benjamin Disraeli with dividing mendacity into three categories: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Statistics were a new concept in Disraeli’s day (the word dates only to 1787), but today we swim in a sea of them, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, Federal Reserve, Congressional Budget Office, and Office of Management and Budget — to name only a few of the major sources — issuing them by the ton every day. Politicians and pundits then use and misuse them to advance an agenda.

But most people and — it seems — almost all political reporters, lack the skills to analyze these statistics in order to figure out if they are being misinformed or even deliberately lied to. One has the impression that many political reporters disdain such analysis: Hey! We’re word guys not number guys! That’s not our department.

Perhaps so, but it is their job to ferret out the truth and that means exposing lies. When a politician tells a flat-out lie (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) and gets caught, the consequences can be severe. But if he tells a lie using statistics — compares apples with oranges, chooses a base point for tendentious purposes, or designs a chart in order to give a false impression (to make the curve look steep, just shorten the X axis) — hardly anyone notices and, it seems, fewer care. It’s just business as usual in Washington, where even the federal books are a tissue of accounting lies to hide the true state of the public fisc.

Schools should make it a part of the basic curriculum to teach children how to spot phony and misleading statistics. And news organizations should hire an editor whose job would be to instruct and correct reporters on the subject.

I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.


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