Numbers Don’t Lie, But People Do

Commentary / by Charles Seife /

The author of a new book on misleading math examines the Republican blueprint for governing the United States, and comes to one conclusion: Wherever there’s politics, there’s proofiness.

“Proofiness” is the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove what you know in your heart is true—even when it’s not. It’s a particularly powerful form of propaganda, because we’re primed to believe anything that’s couched in quantitative form. After all, there’s very little in this world that has the cold, hard certainty of mathematical proof. Yet people can torture numbers, imbuing lies with an aura of certainty.

Politicians and pundits are the modern masters of the dark art. Almost any major political speech or document will be liberally larded with proofiness.

On September 23rd, the GOP released the “Pledge to America,” its legislative agenda for when and if it achieves a majority in the House of Representatives this fall. The draft that the GOP circulated to the press was chock full of mathematical distortions. For example, it had two graphs, one that portrayed government spending and one that illustrated unemployment, and both had a distorted vertical scale. It’s a classic trick, used to exaggerate an increase or a decrease in a set of data. In this case, it was clearly designed to make it look like the rise in spending and unemployment during President Barack Obama’s administration was much worse than it actually is. Here is a recreation of the GOP’s government-spending bar graph, and here is my corrected version. Notice a difference?

But the GOP isn’t solely to blame. In fact, its unemployment graph was a riff on one released by Democrats a few years earlier, one that had the exact same problem with the vertical scale. Back then—when the Dems were trying to drum up public support for the stimulus package—they were busy exaggerating how many jobs the scheme would create.

Indeed, numerical nonsense comes from all parts of the political spectrum. When Glenn Beck bragged about the half-million people at his rally on the mall (there were only about 90,000), he was merely following in the footsteps of Louis Farrakhan, who, a decade and a half earlier, declared that there were a million people in attendance at his rally. (When the Park Service stated that there were fewer than half that, Farrakhan threatened to sue.)

Neither side has any compunction about misusing statistics to advance their political agendas, and both sides use the same tricks such as conflating correlation with causation. In the 1990s, Democrats used a specious link between tobacco smoking and suicide to try to get the public off of cigarettes (and to push a tobacco tax). The Republicans seized upon a similarly questionable link between abortion and suicide to get “right to know” acts passed in a few states, forcing young teens to be told about the supposed dangers of terminating a pregnancy. Both arguments are equally wrong. Neither tobacco nor abortion are the causes of increased suicide rates; much more likely is that they’re symptoms of underlying psychological states that increase the risk. (Abortion is linked to higher rates of accidental death, for example; it’s probably an indicator of risk-seeking behavior.)

As the US midterm elections draw near, expect a barrage of bogus numbers and phony conclusions drawn from bad data. Be vigilant. Political fortunes might change, but one thing is constant: Bogus numbers are extremely potent tools for snookering the public.

Charles Seife is an author and associate professor of journalism at New York University. His latest book is Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception.

Originally published September 24, 2010

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