There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damn lies, and statistics. Only one of the three has the potential for truth.
The phrase, “lies, damn lies, and statistics” has been attributed to writer Mark Twain, who claimed it actually came from statesman Benjamin Disraeli.
The point is that numbers, however factual, can be manipulated to bolster even inaccurate and poorly formed arguments.
In case you need to know more about how numbers (or, facts in general) can be twisted, turned, tweaked, and tortured into submission, Amazon will take your money and send you a book.
I first learned about lies when I was a child. Some call the use of facts to manipulate reality to be merely a form of imagination. But if the intent of presenting a fact is to distort reality, then it’s still a lie.
In college, I majored in speech communications, which required me to take a number of classes in argumentation and debate. It was sometimes called the “lies, damn lies, and statistics” class.
Without the statistics.
In a political campaign a few years ago, presidential candidate and former vice president, Al Gore, uttered: “Almost half of Texas prisoners go back behind bars within three years.”
This is a good example of manipulation and one reason why I enjoy watching politics. The theater would do Shakespeare proud.
Think about Gore’s statement. The implication is that George W. Bush as governor of Texas was somehow responsible for such a negative statistic.
It also implies that a 50-percent return-to-prison rate is not a good thing. But that’s as far as Gore allowed the statement to go, and any followup by the media covering the campaign was lost in to anyone not paying close attention.
You see, Gore didn’t provide a timeline for his statistic. He didn’t provide attribution, either– was Bush the guy in charge and responsible for recidivism in Texas? Hardly.
But the power of a disjointed, out of place phrase, disguised as a statistic, can be substantial, though in Gore’s case it probably didn’t matter much.
Maybe he just didn’t come up with enough statistics.
Here’s a set of lies that’s even more current. “31 countries are contributing troops as part of the coalition of forces in Iraq.” That sounds wonderful; as if a broad coalition of nations was helping Iraq return to prosperity.
But nothing could be further from that “truth.” Of 150,000 or so coalition troops in Iraq at the time, the US and Britain accounted for about 134,000, which left barely 14,000 troops supplied by the other 29 countries, or about 500 troops each.
So much for a coalition.
Numbers are just numbers. We ascribe or attach meaning to numbers depending upon our needs, requirements, politics, religion, objectives.
As long as we’re not willing to let the facts speak for themselves, then we’ll have to view the presentation of facts with a healthy dose of skepticism.