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Friday, February 3, 2017

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Wow. Just wow. Yesterday, Kellyanne Conway disclosed to the world news of the "Bowling Green Massacre."

And some people believed her.

I guess it's no surprise in the current political climate (where half the country think that "gaslighting" refers to some romantic mood set by this administration) that making up what are easily debunked stories is considered acceptable for "news."

When we have the need for articles with headlines like this:

you know we've gone down the rabbit hole into a world turned upside down. Since when have we had to use the word REAL in front of the word facts? Isn't that redundant? If a story isn't real, it's fiction.

How has the term "alt-facts" become a thing? If facts aren't real, they aren't facts. As any writer knows, words have specific meanings, and those meanings have power. Choose and wield your words as you would a surgical instrument--for precision. A scalpel, not a mallet. Know and use the correct instrument. The correct, precise word for alternative facts is LIES. 

While the GOP, and particularly this administration, are masters in the art of lying, and their followers are happy to be led down that garden path, I blame liberals for starting us down that path with the oh-so-trite and misleading axiom that "perception is reality."

Not when your perception is incorrect it's not. Then, it's a misperception. 

This ridiculous and patently false phrase became quite de rigueur in the late 90s and early 00s. It's echoes can still be heard in many halls and offices where agencies are trying to accomplish goals related to complex scientific ideas that a vast majority of the population don't have the educational or intellectual foundation to fully grasp. (Think climate change communication, think astrophysics, think stem cell research.)

This is not to say the audiences are stupid, but they didn't get sufficient science education at the requisite level to understand all the many disciplines and concepts at play. Just because you took A & P in college doesn't make you a doctor. A medical doctor spent many years learning all she needed to know to get that title. Similarly, understanding the natural world means spending years learning the many and complex concepts, strategies, and processes involved. That 100-level science class that you may, possibly--or not--have had as a freshman in college (and may or may not remember at all) doesn't begin to provide a complete picture on which it build an accurate framework, nor does it make you an "expert."

For the layman, actual, factual information and explanations of any specialized field can sound like gobbledy-gook. The easy, comforting sound bite is easier to digest. Filled with misperceptions, these at least give people something to latch onto. The easier they are to understand, the more comforting they are, the better.

Although the thinking behind "perception is reality" as applied to learning is solid---before we can learn new information, our misconceptions must be identified and addressed, then those can be corrected with factual information--what's happened is we've been too accommodating of the misperceptions. We did a great job of recognizing the misperceptions, but stopped short of correcting them. We bastardized "Respect other people's opinions" into accepting that all opinions are just as valid as facts. We let the mantra that "not everyone has to think the same," extrapolate into "being wrong about facts is just as valid as the facts themselves."

Those cliches about the validity of opinions and varied views are only true when we're talking about subjective topics like beliefs, and phenomenon that aren't subject to scientific evaluation to determine whether or not they're factual. Your taste and preference in food, art, music, your religious beliefs--those are subjective. They depend on individual perception and circumstance: how, when, and where you were raised, what you're accustomed to. There is no right or wrong, just different.

Scientific facts aren't that. They are objective and evidence-based. They are built on observation, measurement, and verification. The scientific method starts with a hypothesis (perception), but then it goes further and validates that hypothesis, or corrects it, through experimentation and evidence. Misperceptions are identified, addressed, and corrected through the scientific method. Repeat after me:


Now go learn the facts. If the subject matter is too complex, find someone who really is an expert in that field to help you understand it. HINT: Politicians are not experts in any field other than getting re-elected.

How do you--or I, or anyone--keep from getting caught up in the hysteria of "alt facts," aka lies and damn lies, flooding social media and even some (not particularly credible) alt-news sources? Here are few ideas:

Follow only credible news sources. Here's that list of 10 good places to start. Don't believe these? You might want to subscribe to Stars and Stripes, the US Military news source. Each year, they get blasted by half their readers for having a left bias, and the other half for having a right bias. Pretty strong evidence they're neutral. They also select a panel, balanced between newspaper editors and publishers considered left- and right-leaning, to evaluate a random selection of news stories they published in the past year and rate the "slant." Again, they typically come out in the center.

Check out the Poynter Institute's many online courses on news- and media- literacy designed to help you understand and evaluate news stories and news sources to determine their credibility. They also offer a number of online courses in fact-checking.

Finally, since the title of this blog is lies, damn lies, and statistics, let me address that last one: the dreaded "s-word." Many people have learned nothing more about statistics than this quaint phrase, often attributed incorrectly to Mark Twain. The actual, verifiable source (and who Mark Twain himself credited as such) is British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. 

Image from

Statistics is nothing more than math. It's a way to evaluate your numbers--the data you've gathered--to determine if they're meaningful and accurate, or if the results are random and arbitrary. Our brains like to put order on chaos. We see patterns when they may not exist. Statistics gives us a way to check our own biases and determine if the imposed and supposed pattern actually exists. 

Can statistics be used to lie? Not really. They can, however, be used to confound those who are ignorant of how statistics work. One oft-seen example is when news sources report on poll results. Turn to one channel and you'll hear, "Polls show that 24 percent of people support the president's actions." Yeah! Look at that! Clearly, he's doing the right thing. 

At least, that's what it may seems like to someone who doesn't actually understand math and statistics. Turn the channel and you hear the same story, reporting the same statistic: Seventy-six percent of the people polled oppose whatever that action is.

Spin? Yes and no. It depends on if you know your numbers. As I tell my students, statistics can only be used to lie to those who don't know statistics. 

If you don't want to be lied to, learn statistics.