Statistics and Lying with numbers

Did you know that 95% of polls are done by people who've already decided the results?.
75% of people who read polls believe them unquestioningly.
Polls have an average of plus or minus 10% tracking error.
85% of politicians use tracking polls to make decisions that effect your life.
100% of these statistics have been fabricated. It's amazing how authoritative you can sound just by quoting some statistics...

by Michael Fumento, CEI's Warren Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism and author of "Science Under Siege: Balancing Technology and the Environment."

Book review of "Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Fact in America

appeared in *The Washington Post*, "Book World," 7/10/94

In an increasingly skeptical age, there's one tool that continues to
wow 'em: scientific data or data that's been scientifically collected.
*Wall Street Journal* reporter Cynthia Crossen argues that there is indeed
such a thing as objective truth, but that when the bottom line comes into
play, such "scientific" studies may be the last place to find it.

Consider the oat bran mania, which was based originally on a study
reflecting all of a 3.3 percent -- statistically insignificant -- drop in
cholesterol among persons who had oatmeal or oat bran added to their diet.
The grain that Dr. Johnson's dictionary claimed was fit only for horses
and Scotsmen became "the next miracle food," as one newspaper put it.
Indeed, the Quaker Oats Company aggressively pushed that line. Next thing
we knew, oat bran had been added to more than 300 products, including
potato chips, toothpaste, and licorice. When another major study appeared
that found no special cholesterol-lowering property in oat bran, Quaker
Oats did practically everything to destroy the researchers' credibility
short of catapulting their spokesperson at them.

Food disinformation- and misinformation is bad enough, but what about
pharmaceuticals? Crossen notes that a researcher viewed 107 published
studies comparing a new drug and a traditional therapy and found "studies
of new drugs sponsored by drug companies were more likely to favor those
drugs than studies supported by noncommercial entities. In not a single
case was a drug or treatment manufactured by the sponsoring company found
inferior to another company's product."

In all fairness, a company won't subject a drug to a study that may
be publicly reported if it doesn't have confidence in that product. But
these data underlie a powerful case. Crossen is on the mark when she
writes, "Despite the many temptations modern scientists face, they still
believe their discipline is self-correcting because it is open, verifiable
and subject to close review by scientific peers. In American medicine,
however, all three of these pillars are deteriorating."

Consumer survey methodology couldn't get a worse whipping in
Singapore than Crossen gives it. She shows how careful choice of survey
respondents, selection of data, and control of other variables can make
virtually anything taste better than anything else. Thus, both Pepsi and
Coca-Cola claimed taste test victories at the same time. Cigarette
manufacturer Lorillard claimed that "TRIUMPH BEATS MERIT" because "an
amazing 60 percent said Triumph tastes as good or better than Merit."
Actually, 36 percent preferred Triumph, 24 percent said they were equal,
and 40 percent preferred Merit.

Political polls fare somewhat better under Crossen's microscope, but
she identifies an amazing number of problems that pollsters need to beware
of, but often don't. Unfortunately, her prime example is the polls
surrounding the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings. Noting that a
year after the hearings the same pollsters that had reported Americans
believing Thomas now had them believing his accuser, Anita Hill, Crossen
argues that the pollsters blew it, that the Senate acted on the polls, and
that thus was changed the course of history. She never broaches the
possibility that Americans were subject to new influences in that
intervening year. Yet this is what happened as feminists turned Hill into
a symbol of victimization and Hollywood weighed in with at least three
prime-time shows all depicting Hill as the hero and Thomas as the villain.

To strengthen her case as much as possible, Crossen occasionally
seems to do her own invidious selecting of information. She rightly
ridicules the cigarette industry's pseudo-scientific claims regarding
direct smoking, but then curtly dismisses the industry's arguments against
the EPA report implicating second-hand smoke in thousands of American lung
cancers. Yet the EPA used the same technique of combining uncombinable
studies that she had earlier condemned when Quaker Oats used it. Even
then, the agency had to change its usual method of determining statistical
significance, essentially moving the goal posts back to the five yard line
because the ball ended upon the three.

Nonetheless, such problems as these are not systemic. "Tainted Truth"
is a terrific guide to a creeping disease that, as she puts it, will make it
"almost inevitable that we will eventually lose our ability to cope with
our problems." It should be read by every editor and reporter who
deals with policy issues, along with everyone who still believes that
truth is something to be sought, rather than manipulated for profit.

Crossen concludes by providing "solutions," some of which are
quixotic, others more practical. One such: "American schools, which have
largely ignored the explosion of quantitative information in daily life,
can and should teach people how to tell whether particular sets of numbers
are believable. Learning information skills should be as important to
high school and college as a working knowledge of literature, science,
economics or communications."

Add to that the need to teach formal logic and say "Amen!"

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