Statistics can often mislead

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”

Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemons writing under the pseudonym Mark Twain did us all a great service when he told us to beware of statistics. The reason is simple: mathematical models and algorithms that explain data are often misunderstood by ordinary people. In other cases, statistics are manipulated by persons usually politicians who wish to deceive us.

The statistical notion of “average” is abused probably more than any other. Although math and business administration students know that average is a measure of central tendency along with median and mode the concept is still confusing to some persons. Former President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, was reported to be “stunned” to learn that half of the U.S. population was below average. Of course, Ike was not alone in his misunderstanding of statistics. Most Americans nowadays will insist that their children, husbands, wives and anyone else related to them are considerably above average in intelligence, cooking ability, soccer skills, whatever. Society supports this flawed notion by inflating school grades, awarding trophies to mediocre athletes and lavishing praise on undeserving individuals.

But it is in the area of public policy that the concept of average can create real problems. Elected officials often use this statistical measure to support otherwise shaky positions or to engage in outright deception. President George W. Bush is a case on point. He regularly uses misleading statistics whenever it suits his purposes or somehow advances the conservative agenda. For example, on Feb. 20, Mr. Bush appeared at a high school in Kennesaw, Ga., and used statistics to argue that his $726 billion tax cut plan would benefit ordinary Americans, small-business owners and senior citizens. His arguments, however, relied on a misleading use of averages to make his plan look good.

“Under this plan, 92 million Americans receive an average tax cut of $1,083,” the president said. “That’s fair.” No, Mr. Bush, it isn’t fair. It’s misleading. The reality is that 80 percent of taxpayers would receive less than that amount according to data from the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center. A typical American family in the middle fifth of the income spectrum would receive a tax cut of only $256. In fact, almost half of all taxpayers would see their taxes drop by less than $100. So who benefits under the Bush tax plan? The very wealthy. The top 1 percent of filers would receive an average tax cut of $24,100. Mr. Bush knows this, but he chafes when his critics point out that he regularly supports policies that benefit corporate fat cats and his rich supporters. Thus, in an attempt to avoid criticism of plan look better than it really is.

Mr. Bush’s questionable use of numbers raises an additional point. If we can’t believe him when he tells us about the supposed benefits of a tax plan, can we trust him on his other pronouncements? Can we, for example, believe him when he says his judicial nominees are not ideologues? More important, can we believe him when he says that Saddam Hussein is 10 feet tall and a threat to the people in North Dakota? You decide.

Gary Jacobsen lives in Woodbridge.

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