Saturday, July 29, 2017

Lies, damn lies, and statistics,

 to borrow from Mark Twain.

Ignorance is bliss, and useful, too.  Much that is written on social media deliberately relies on the ignorance of the audience.  A case in point.

I was reading an "article" in which the writer pointed out that if a certain benchmark represented the "average," then half the people were below average.  A simple example would suffice to show how irresponsible that assertion is, yet many probably blithely swallowed it whole, just as the false prophet intended.

Here's an example.  If four people present scores of 100 and one person scores zero, the average score is 80, and yet clearly only twenty percent of the people in this example are "below average" while eighty percent of them are above average, and none are "average."

How carefully do you read the stuff you read?


Grace said...

Yes, people don't generally know the difference between median and average - or they do know and choose to ignore it. I had to take 'Statistics for Social Scientists' and I was apprehensive because of the math, turns out my professor took the title of the course literally and the actual computations didn't play a major part in the course. The emphasis was on gathering and interpreting data and knowing which formula to apply to the raw data to achieve the results you wanted. So, yes, we were being taught how to manipulate data. It was one the most useful courses I ever took. And yes, I got an A.

Secondary Roads said...

My years as a technical editor has caused me to question every assertion that I encounter. What really gets me is the TV narrator who frequently asks, "Is it possible that . . . ?"

vanilla said...

Grace, I took the course, too. Though the prof was a bit of a stickler for arithmetic, I am glad I have the knowledge I acquired in that class.

Chuck, one fears that no one is teaching critical reading and probably haven't been for at least a generation. The general public seems to be such easy game for all kinds of charlatans, politicians, and others who would mislead.

As to the "is it possible that. . ." If that occurs in a "newscast" it is just wrong-- the reader is not licensed to speculate, in my opinion. If it is clearly an opinion piece, I guess the turkey has a right to guess whatever he wants.

Vee said...

Many who read (or listen to the news) don't understand the underlying concepts. Therefore, they take what they read/hear at as fact. Most people don't have a basic understanding of statistics. (Generalization, I know, but I think it is close to truth.)

I suspect you are correct in your response to Chuck about critical reading. When I taught middle school, a great deal of time was spent on learning to read critically and to identify words and phrases in news articles and other writings that were intended to influence the reader's thinking. Those young people, with guidance and practice, learned to think critically about what they were reading. Now students read for "fun." (Which is mostly what I do in my old age.)

My students also learned to listen for the purpose of understanding (auding) - thinking while hearing.