Our Democracy Un-Spun! #7 – Statistics & How Can We Know the Truth?

"Even such fundamental mathematical verities as … ‘1 and 1 are 2,’ can be misapplied: one cup of...

water plus one cup of popcorn are not equal to two cups of soggy popcorn." John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy, p. 67.

Whether you're getting your news from CNN, FOX News or MSNBC, Twitter or Facebook, your favorite blogger, Wikipedia, supermarket tabloids or those fiery emails going around, we all need to be able to recognize a solid statistical argument from the flood of slick but heavily biased ones. We're talking health, investing, travel and sports, not just the political scene. Statistics, reasoning, critical thinking, all make up the art of persuasion, and of resisting persuasion when it's not in our best interest.

There are many possible sources of misunderstanding with data, statistics and arguments. Was the study well designed? Is the interpretation legitimate? Is the information complete? If not, what's missing? Are the original sources noted, and are they reliable? Are they objective or wanting to push their point of view? Has the media verified the information? Are there other ways to understand this information? And how do I understand what they are saying? Then, of course, there is the question of whether the information was intended to share meaning. Is it filled with jargon, or written so as to confuse, conceal, or be anything but clear?

Obfuscate (ob·fus·cate) -verb [with object]

  • render obscure, unclear, or unintelligible
  • bewilder, mystify, puzzle, perplex, confuse, baffle, confound, bemuse, befuddle, nonplus
  • informal: flummox


   "Torture numbers, and they'll confess to anything." ~Gregg Easterbrook


To take your stand with data and reasoning quickly, it's a good idea to ask:    Says who?    Since when?   Compared to what?

To learn skills in understanding statistics and data: Using M&M's to Develop Statistical Literacy, by Linda Marshall and Paul Swan, is a fun place to start. It will help us all learn to master bar graphs and pie charts, some of the basics of statistics. Then there are average, mean, median... If you want to dig in further, you can study statistics, basic math, or all kinds of topics for free at Khan Academy.

To understand how we can look at the same things but still see things so differently, think about this:

"How you decide to look at something ultimately affects the conclusions you draw. Consider the contrasting effects of a magnifying glass, binoculars, and a telescope. When you look out a window with a magnifying glass, certain things come into focus. Look out that same window, but with a pair of binoculars, and what comes into focus is utterly different. Likewise, a telescope further alters the picture; the picture has changed because the lens brings a different element into focus. The same is true of looking at events through a theoretical lens. Assuming that certain variables are more important to study than others will affect what factors you focus on when studying an event; we will see those factors and their ramifications more clearly than all others. In this sense, basic assumptions shape thinking like different optical lenses affect vision—they focus attention on a particular aspect of a broader phenomenon..." Lenses of Analysis

And to learn about some solid resources that do intend to convey understanding for the non-specialist, watch for our next blog.

These books can help make more sense of the confusion, even if you don't agree with some of the authors' premises.

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, by John Allen Paulos

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks, by Ben Goldacre

Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel

Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers From the Media, Politicians, and Activists, by Joe Best

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, by John Allen Paulos

Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense - And What We Can Do About It, by Lynne V. Cheney


   "Statistics show that of those who contract the habit of eating, very few survive." Wallace Irwin


And Don't forget:

  • Register to vote! The deadline in October 9th! Update your address, and ask for a FAX or email ballot if you are uniformed or living overseas. Do it now!
  • Study the Issues in the Blue Book, in online text, or by audio!
  • Tune in to the Debates!  All are at 7:00 - 8:30 pm here (9:00-10:30 p.m. Eastern Time). Each debate will be broadcast live on C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC, as well as all cable news channels including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and more.
  • 1.  Wednesday, October 3  -   University of Denver, Denver, CO
  • 2.  Tuesday, October 16   -  Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY 
  • 3.  Monday, October 22  -  Lynn University, Boca Raton, FL
  • Vice Presidential debate  -  Thursday, October 11  -  Centre College, Danville, KY

If you have questions, or want assistance finding reliable information on this or any topic, contact our Reference Services Department on Level 3 of the Central Library, 720-865-1363 or dplref@denverlibrary.org.

Written by Elaine on September 28, 2012


Anonymous on October 10, 2012


Thank you for the informed and balanced list of resources. I really appreciate my library.

Anonymous on October 10, 2012


Thank you! It's our pleasure!

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