Stats can lie

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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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