Damned Lies and Statistics

Article excerpt

Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best University of California Press * 2001 * 190 pages * $19.95

Reviewed by George C Leef

One of the most infuriating aspects of the "information age" is that it makes it easy for those who want to undermine freedom to get their way by peddling falsehoods. Statistics can be among the most damaging of falsehoods. Undoubtedly you've seen them at work on behalf of meddlers who want something from government: statistics on Americans without health insurance; statistics on homelessness; statistics on deaths of children due to firearms, and so on. The well-documented "innumeracy" that characterizes much of our populace helps the meddlers because few people are able to see when they're being deceived.

Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics is a level-headed look at the problem of the use (mostly misuse) of statistics in America. He observes that "bad statistics are potentially important: they can be used to stir up public outrage or fear; they can distort our understanding of our world; and they can lead us to make poor policy choices." The book proceeds to show how bad statistics come into existence, how they take on a life of their own, and how people can spot them.

Best, professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, begins his examination of the problem by citing what he regards as the worst social statistic ever. When serving on a dissertation committee, he read a student's prospectus that stated, "Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled." Best checked the citation, an academic journal, thinking that the student had copied the quotation incorrectly. But no, the quotation was accurate. The problem was obvious to anyone with a familiarity with mathematics and the powers of two. By 1980 the number of children gunned down would be two to the power thirty-more than one billion! Obviously and fantastically wrong, there it was, being cited by people interested in propounding the notion that huge numbers of children are killed by guns every year.

The root of the problem is that it is so easy to use statistics to hoodwink people into believing things that government activists want them to believe. Best shows the several ways in which numbers can be cooked to convince people that "Like wow! The government better do something!" His third chapter, "Methods for Mangling Numbers" does a wonderful job of explaining the tricks of the trade. One is the use of questionable definitions to inflate minimal problems into headline makers. …