’Rithmetic rage

Mine, mine, mine!!! Image by Neville Harvey/The Star-Ledger.

Mine, mine, mine!!!
Image by Neville Harvey/The Star-Ledger.

Politics and math just don’t mix, at least judging from the rounding errors and statistical shenanigans blighting the landscape. If that landscape was at least a Claude Monet or Thomas Moran, I could enjoy it a lot more.

Monet and poppies? What's not to love? Wild Poppies, near Argenteuil, by Claude Monet found on WikiArt.

Monet and poppies? What’s not to love?
Wild Poppies, near Argenteuil, by Claude Monet found on WikiArt.

One of the latest numbers to irritate my sensitive psyche (as I’m sure some think I must have … darn my truth sensitivity): $19 trillion. Political candidates and pundits trumpet it repeatedly, and so do their followers—the U.S. has a $19 trillion national debt.

Except we don’t.

According to usgovernmentdebt.us and FiscalFactCheck, the real number is about $18.15 trillion. OK, the actual number was $18,149,537,205,000 when this was written, but in newspapers, we don’t write out the whole number in most instances (too many opportunities for error, for one thing); we round it.

Of course, there are always those who’ll round up or down when it’s most politically expedient … because, ya know, it’s easier to sell a disastrous economy by inflating the unfavorable numbers … that you cherry-pick, making sure to remove all context that would show the true picture.

The point is that the debt is very large, and no one person can be blamed for it. Editorial cartoon by Steve Breen, San Diego Union-Tribune.

The point is that the debt is very large, and no one person can be blamed for it. Sorry if that disrupts your diatribe.
Editorial cartoon by Steve Breen, San Diego Union-Tribune.

We, though, rely on the tried and true rule of rounding up if the number is 5 or higher, and down if it’s lower. That means that if you say the debt is $19 trillion, you’re overreaching by about $850 billion. If you say it’s $18 trillion, you’re more correct, but underplaying it by $150 billion—not insignificant, but less than a fifth of the overreach.

For those who say that’s clear evidence of bias to point that out, and especially to note the nearly $1 trillion difference in the real number and the overestimation, sorry. That’s just math, which in its purest form reflects reality. No matter how hard you try, 2+2 will just not equal 19 trillion.

Makes perfect sense to me! Image found on The Mostly Confused Teenager.

Makes perfect sense to me!
Image found on The Mostly Confused Teenager.

As with words, then, math (often incorrect) is used as a political truncheon. By heading for the extremes, though, you shortchange the truth.

Is there a reason for all this? Possibly, according to a study by Yale law professor Dan Kahan. He gave more than 1,000 participants a complex math problem—determining the effectiveness, using raw data, of a skin cream that sometimes heals rashes and sometimes doesn’t—so difficult that 59 percent got it wrong. Among those who got it right (generally those who were better at math), there was little statistical difference between Democrats and Republicans on the skin cream question.

Wait ... give me a minute ... I can figure this out ... Image by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images found on Huffington Post.

Wait … give me a minute … I can figure this out …
Image by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images found on Huffington Post.

When the question was reframed to be about concealed-carry laws, the participants’ preconceived notions on gun control (falling largely along party lines) affected their ability to answer the question correctly, and those with better math skills tended to do worse. Kahan told Mother Jones that he had two theories on why that happened: the participants intuited an incorrect answer that meshed with their political beliefs and simply stopped checking further; or they calculated the correct answer, but it didn’t agree with their politics so they refused to accept it, dreaming up complex reasons for why it wasn’t correct.

But you can make him parrot talking points! Image found on Highlands Blog.

But you can make him parrot talking points!
Image found on Highlands Blog.

Contrary to the notion that more information will make it more likely that a person would come to the same consensus as scientists when presented with the data, Kahan’s study seemed to suggest that political bias skewers the ability to reason.

Ideology over evidence? The hell you say!

We see this phenomenon all the time, especially on highly charged topics like guns, climate change, the economy, and abortion. A Mount Everest-sized pile of evidence will not convince someone who’s completely mired in the ideological muck … but it just might make him more prone to pick statistical cherries.

So there ... nyah! Image found on Skeptical Raptor.

So there … nyah!
Image found on Skeptical Raptor.

Frequent correspondent Don Kline brought up the games people play with statistics to further political agendas, noting two recent Perspective pieces that ran on the same day, both citing the familiar 20 percent of college women raped. One of the essays noted that the Justice Department’s legal definition of rape results in rates of 3 and 4 percent of college women. By adding attempted rape and what is now considered sexual assault (forced kissing, fondling, etc.), the number rises to 20 percent.

Don asked: “If someone didn’t read both editorials, how are they to know that the figure that they did read might be incorrect (inflated??). If they did read both articles, how do they know which one to believe? Although, the first article, with its explanations of the ‘legalese,’ seems to be much clearer.”

He’s absolutely right, and we should always take statistics with a grain of salt … or a whole cargo-ship load if from a clearly partisan source. Often those numbers are sliced and diced in such a way to make one side look positively angelic and the other side one step removed from Satan himself.

Pretty much the way is goes with cherry-pickers ... Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller, June 3, 2009, found on GoComics.

Pretty much the way is goes with cherry-pickers …
Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller, June 3, 2009, found on GoComics.

That’s one reason I always check the methodology of studies and polls, as well as their definitions of terms and categories, to gauge how much trust I should place in their numbers.

Like any other study, the source is important in determining reliability, as are peer reviews, the margin of error, makeup of the participants and how they were chosen, whether the study design is appropriate for the subject, if the raw data are included and properly calculated, etc. Studies that don’t adhere to generally accepted principles of research and that don’t show their work (math-class flashback!) are not to be trusted.

Well, unless they say what you want them to say. ’Cause, ya know, ideology is far more important than getting things right.

Aaaand here come the “dang liberal” epithets again.

That's right, folks, stay classy ... and you might try going back to school ... Image by Getty found on Business Insider.

That’s right, folks, stay classy … and you might try going back to school …
Image by Getty found on Business Insider.


Charles Allbright (left) and Richard Allin donated their papers to the University of Central Arkansas in 2004 after their columns ended. Photo by Russ Hancock found on Arkansas Times.

Charles Allbright (left) and Richard Allin donated their papers to the University of Central Arkansas in 2004 after their columns ended.
Photo by Russ Hancock found on Arkansas Times.

Most everyone who picked up a copy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before 2004 knew who Charles Allbright was—the longtime, always entertaining columnist who wrote the Arkansas Traveler column. For those of us lucky enough to have worked with Charlie (I never could call him Charles), he was more than that. He was a kind, gentle soul who always made time for the people he valued. Charlie passed away on Oct. 22.

When I started at the paper back in 1997, Charlie was one of the first people to make me feel comfortable, offering me jokes, stories and advice. He always made me smile, and was just as down-to-earth and genuine as his columns indicated.

When Charlie left the office to work at home, I didn’t see him as often, but it was always a highlight of my day when he’d come in for his check or just to visit. Then, after his and Richard Allin’s columns were discontinued, his visits were rare, but still always appreciated. He, like many of the old guard, never lost that ability to make me laugh, sometimes to the point of crying. And now I’m crying again.

Now he’s joined other vets of the newspaper war we’ve lost, like fellow jokesters Jerry Jones and Leroy Donald. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of laughter going on right now wherever they are.

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