Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

2 08 2012

Mitt Romney returned from Europe this week.  Wearing is best presidential suit, he visited Great Britain, Israel and Poland.  There was quite a bit of chatter regarding a few gaffs he made “on the campaign trail”. But this was probably true of the then Senator Obama too   when he made his  trip to the Old World  in 2008.   It’s an  ancient  ritual for candidates to “prove” their knowledge and show proof they will be ready for foreign affairs on day One.

This week Governor Romney he returned to a series of new polls: one from   Gallup  and the second from Quinipiac. US News and Reports wrote “Obama Leads Romney in Critical Swing States”.    On the other hand Fox News reported  “Obama popular in voter-rich states but lagging in key battlegrounds”.  When I saw both of the these headlines, and delved into the articles I was surprised how differing these view were, at least at first blush.

To get to the bottom I looked at reference polls. Gallup had large set of data asking voter thoughts across all 50 states ond the District of Columbia.  The poll focused on the percent of voters who think President Obama is doing a good job, while the Quinipiac poll focuses solely on Florida Ohio and Pennsylvania,  and the likelihood they will support the President.   The data stated many facts that were published  in both articles.  However I was still unsure how  the authors referenced the same article and came to two very different conclusions.   How did this happen?

I dissected the articles and realized that both articles, though factually true, spun two different stories based on a nuanced reading of the polls.  These publishers  addressed both sides of  possible outcomes regarding the Presidential race.  Yet each had an argument that was supported by the data. So I was surprised  and wondering why I read articles why did i think i read what I read.  After a bit I realized how much I was swayed by the head line and lead sentence.

Most people are not rational in their decisions. Rarely do they dig deep into the facts. Clever writing and sounds bites most often win the fight. I like to think that intelligent voters, like myself, will make wise and prudent decisions founded in their studies.  Folks like me  desire to honor the truth and upheld it like the statue Lady Justice  the court house. However it was pretty clear that I was being worked by the publishers and I’m not immune  to this kind of marketing.  I guess I’m like the rest of the huddled masses.

In 1906 Mark Twain wrote in the North American Review   ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”  I do believe I’m as gullible as the next when it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff with statistics.  It’s pretty clear I need to become more vigilant and not let the slick ad guys in New York and Chicago manipulate my emotions.  It so much work being an informed voter!

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