Monday, March 22, 2010

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Today I'm going to write a short blog on how numbers are twisted and mashed before being presented to the public for digestion. I'm going to use the current health care debate as the basis as some new research that HAS been misrepresented. The whole purpose of this isn't to support or malign this topic, rather just to show everyone exactly HOW things get so messed up and how easy it is to misrepresent a statistic. Sadly, most people in the US don't have a very comprehensive knowledge of how statistics and the social sciences work. This is really too bad, as it's fundamental for understanding public opinion in a democracy.

Here is what is getting airplay today - this is from a CNN opinion poll:

As you may know, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate are trying to pass final legislation that would make major changes in the country’s health care system. Based on what you have read or heard about that legislation, do you generally favor it or generally oppose it?

Mar 19-21
Favor 39%
Oppose 59%
No opinion 2%

Ok, so imagine you're watching Fox News -- what's the talking point here? That Americans clearly did not want health care reform, right? The problem is that these statistics only refer to the actual question! Anything you're taking away from it is your own bias. Let me prove this to you. Let's look at the next question in the poll:

21. (IF OPPOSE) Do you oppose that legislation because you think its approach toward health care is too liberal, or because you think it is not liberal enough?
Mar 19-21
Favor (from Question 20) 39%
Oppose, too liberal 43%
Oppose, not liberal enough 13%
No opinion 5%

Now, this changes the whole world view of the discussion -- we now see that 52% support health reform, just that 13% think that the bill didn't go far enough! Do you see how the original statistic in isolation manipulated your perception of the situation? Both stats are accuarate, but unless you have the second one, you're left with the impression that most of America is against reform, which is totally not the case. 52% are for, 43% are against, and 5% are undecided. That's a whole different world.

Anyway, you can see all the stats here.

By the way, I'd like to point out -- health stocks are up today. Clearly the business world saw the passage of health care reform as a plus. Just something to think about.

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