Stats can lie

David Simon, creator of The Wire, was on Bill Moyers journal this past week.  Before getting into the world of writing and directing television, he was a journalist in Baltimore for many years. At that job he got to watch how the police force, city government, and school system work, or perhaps we could say, don’t work.

At one point in part 1, Simon touches on a topic that says alot about how our world works – the use of statistics to justify some plan or political goal.   Specifically he says:

You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America… anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on, and as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people at that institution will be at working trying to make it look like progress has been made when actually no progress has occurred.

Simon gets into how when the mayor of Baltimore wanted higher arrest numbers and the police department wanted to show those stats, they would go around arresting anyone they could including people sitting on their front steps (loitering in a drug-free zone). But he points to how the same logic applies in the school system where students are taught only what they need to get test answers right and increase the test scores. Or how the media are more concerned about winning awards and pleasing managers rather than doing difficult investigative reports and connecting those reports to the bigger picture.

As Simon mentions, this same way of thinking can be found in the current financial crisis… showing good numbers to please investors even if those numbers are based on toxic assets and loans that people can’t pay back.

Its enough to make a person think twice when they rely on the old logic “Just the facts m’am”, as journalists so often have throughout history. Stats can be , and often are,  used and abused. It takes alot more than stats to tell a story and understand an issue.

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4 thoughts on “Stats can lie

  • April 24, 2009 at 4:00 am
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    Dude, I work in a fairly affluent school district, where numbers shouldn’t be something we sweat about, but we do, and the bigwigs move ’em around and have ’em say all sorts of things that aren’t really true, and we all pat ourselves on the back about the fine, fine job we do teaching kids, and yet nothing is really learned, and no real innovating methods of instruction are discovered. The numbers have destroyed creativity and daring in public education, and it’s a goddamn shame. My kids learn more in my drama classes than they do when I “teach reading.”

    • April 25, 2009 at 2:51 pm
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      you are complaining of the situation of their police, more if you live here in Brazil is mainly in big cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo you see how police here and we will not generalize, and harder still boms more police to combat crime

    • April 27, 2009 at 3:29 pm
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      isnt it possible to reverse this? i mean, it wasnt always about stats in the history of the american school system? what would it take to swing the pendulum the other way?

  • April 27, 2009 at 3:51 pm
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    Remove the use of standardized testing as the benchmark for how well a student or a school is doing, and it’s a start. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy made this into a real problem for schools, although it existed before NCLB.

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