Lies, Darn Lies, and Modern Media Statistics
Most of us have utilized our unfettered, nearly-instantaneous access to an nigh-infinite amount of information to make sure we never learn a darn thing we don’t want too.
"Statistics,” the late great Vin Scully quipped, “are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination."
We are adrift in the mathematical body of science that pertains to the collection, analysis, interpretation or explanation, and presentation of data: Statistics, in the vernacular, or stats in the slang. No people in all of human history have had more unfettered, nearly-instantaneous access to an nigh-infinite amount of information as we do in our present dispensation of time.
West Virginians especially hear about statistics. For decades now, how many headlines, think pieces, commentaries, or news items have revolved around the latest statistics of how West Virginia is ranked 48th in this, 49th in that, or 50th out of 50 states in some other thing? Or conversely, how the latest census data showed the Mountain State as number one, or more truthfully the only, state to lose population. Stats on health care, education, income, poverty, opioid use, business environment, on and on and on goes the list of numbers and data meant to impart some great tidbit of knowledge.
Recently, Amanda Hernandez for Stateline reported that only 45% of West Virginia’s law enforcement agencies were reporting their statistics to the federal database, “which means less than half of the police departments in their states submitted 2022 crime data to the FBI.” Statistics such as crime data are needed for far more than just accurate, effective policy making, but greatly influence how the armed enforcement wing of the government and the criminal justice system deals with the greater population.
Healthcare statistics will affect everyone at some point, since such data is used by everything from insurance companies to set rates and benefits to hospital systems for coding, billing, and administrative planning. While the medical care you and your loved ones receive is of the utmost importance and pressing need to you and your family, much of that care will be dictated by the statistics that flow across the screen of the person making the decisions that affect your life without ever meeting you.
Sports fans will tell you there is no watching any sort of game nowadays without some graphic about “next gen stats” popping up. This is because the networks have seen the statistics that folks love graphics about statistics, which helps their ratings. The networks then show their statistics on their ratings to advertisers, who then use statistics of those ad views to the companies they represent to earn more money in ad buys. The companies then have corporate meetings where the advertising statistics are presented as a great thing to help out all the other statistics the company uses. Post meeting, the emails go out to all the employees about how they need to improve their statistics for the company, for their jobs, and for…reasons.
We are awash in statistics as a society. Problem is, most of us have utilized our unfettered, nearly-instantaneous access to an nigh-infinite amount of information to make sure we never learn a darn thing we don’t want too.
You can make statistics say about anything you want to. Ask anyone in middle management how you can change the type and colors on a chart to make the numbers look just right to that boss who just wants the answer they are looking for. Too often in the stats that really matter - like poverty, education, drug use, criminal justice, employment, and others - that is exactly what everyone from office holders to Facebook randos are doing.
Prattling on about X percentage of Y dollars going to Z thing is standard political speak for our elected officials, so it is on we the voters to not just accept the statistics at face value but to check ourselves, challenge the numbers, and press the pontificating potentate on the details to see if they actually know what they are talking about other than just a rehearsed set of numbers. Doing a quick Google search of that headline-making study of such and such old problem to prove the new hotness fix is really all that, before just resending it along on your social media, should be a level of citizenship everyone aspires to.
Statistics are just a tool, something to identify and quantify what is happening. Too often though, the math of stats and data strips away the human elements that are essential for truly understanding what is going on, discerning the reasons thereof, and getting the perspective and leadership to make things better. “The poor” are a statistic, as are “drug users,” “criminals,” “dropouts,” “the unemployed,” and the always popular in arguments “them.” But your friends and family have names, and the people you know, love, and care for that struggle with getting by, or overcoming, or trying to better themselves are not served well by being numbers instead of people.
Statistics are fine things that can be used to make things better, but only if folks start by refusing to be treated by their government and fellow citizens as mere statistics. The old adage used to be that humans shouldn’t just be cogs in the wheel, being grounded down and used. Being a line item on a spreadsheet isn’t any better, and if we are honest about the way technology works and speeds processes these days, is probably worse.