A Healthy Level of Skepticism
Did you know that out of all the heaping amounts of claims and statements that PolitiFact checks, they found that 85 percent aren’t true? Now, there will always be a fair amount of B.S. in the world – unbacked claims, bad statistics, and a frequent combination of the two. I just can’t help but notice that so much of that misinformation is being spread and going unquestioned in today’s day and age. That being said, I have to admit that I’m guilty of making some of those misleading statements accompanied by numbers myself… and only a mere three sentences ago. You see, PolitiFact rates statements made in the public spotlight, particularly more so within the political arena, on six different scales – only one of them being “true.” All I did was merely negate to include “mostly true” and “half true” statements, aggregate the whole bunch, do some algebra, and BAM you have yourself a statistic! Heck, I even sourced the claim and it could technically hold up. Not to mention, let’s think about how PolitiFact chooses the claims they fact check.
According to their methodology, they are willing to check anything from speeches, to press releases, to social media blasts, and more. Of course their journalists aren’t able to check the wide array of claims and political blurbs made on a daily basis, and some statements don’t even warrant an analysis, but these folks are thorough. I’d highly recommend taking a peak at their methods and code of ethics. But, an interesting piece of information tucked within their methodology is that roughly one third of all claims analyzed come from internet users’ suggestions. I’d be willing to bet that most of those suggestions stem from the same bias that’s prevalent in all human behavior – a propensity to recall negative experiences far more than positive ones. Think about it – when are you most likely to leave a review on Yelp? When you’ve had a good experience? Or, when you’ve had some of the worst customer service in years, leading you to unleash your inner keyboard warrior? Probably the latter… So, wouldn’t you think more drastically-false claims would be reported, hence the reason for a higher share of less-than-truthful ratings? More than likely, but I don’t have access to their microdata to definitively say. This is just a small example of how facts can mislead.
I’m not here to harp or praise PolitiFact in this article. In fact, I wholeheartedly support their venture to expose the vast amount of political falsehoods and perform the much-needed check on the corruption that is D.C. That being said, I work with numbers and statistics in my 8 to 5 so I can’t help but cringe when I hear or see some of these abhorrent use of statistics. One of my favorite pieces that shines a light on how statistics can be misleading is Spurious Correlations. This is when two separate variables seem to follow the same trend line, which leads many to believe that they are causing each other to happen. In fact, they are mere coincidence. One example, someone could make the case that nuclear plants are driving up the number of deaths in the nation – all the while providing the statistical correlation between the two variables. BUT (and that’s a big but… ;) ) I can almost guarantee that the amount of power generated by U.S. nuclear power plants is not responsible for the number of deaths from drowning in a swimming pool, which is the real reason why deaths are rising.
At the end of the day, I’m only advocating that you vet the information you’re given, and keep in mind that there’s some reason that this company, politician, or person lurking in the comments of Instagram is using certain statistics in their ads, speeches, or rants – to sell you something! An idea, a call to action, or a sow for distaste – you name it! Numbers work magic on us human beings and our perceptions, even if it’s only a number for number’s sake. All I ask is that you maintain a healthy level of skepticism, that you think critically, aaaand… you realize Donald Trump has lied to the American people more than any sitting President. Period. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ And that’s a statistic I’m willing to bet my career on.