Chapter 2: Sociological Investigation


Can People Lie with Statistics?

Is research-especially research involving numbers-always as "factual" as we think? Not according to the great English politician Benjamin Disraeli, who once remarked, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics!" In a world that bombards us with numbers-often described as "scientific facts" or "official figures"-it is worth pausing to consider that "statistical evidence" is not necessarily the same as truth. For one thing, any researcher can make mistakes. For another, because data do not speak for themselves, someone has to interpret what they mean. Sometimes, people (even sociologists) "dress up" their data almost the way politicians deliver campaign speeches-with an eye more to winning you over than getting at the truth.

The best way not to fall prey to statistical manipulation is to understand how people can mislead with statistics.

1. People select their data. Many times, the data presented are not wrong, but they are not the whole story. Let's say someone who thinks that television is ruining our way of life presents statistics indicating that we watch more TV today than a generation ago. Moreover, during the same period, College Board scores have fallen. Both sets of data may be correct, but the suggestion that television is lowering test scores is unproven. Moreover, a person more favorable to television might counter with the additional "fact" that our country spends much more on books today than a generation ago, suggesting that television creates new intellectual interests. In sum, people can find statistics that seem to support just about any political argument.

2. People interpret their data. Another way people manipulate statistics is to "package" them with a ready-made interpretation, as if numbers can mean only one thing. One publication, for example, presented the results of a study of U.S. children living in poverty (National Center for Children in Poverty, cited in Population Today, 1995). As the figure shows, the researchers reported that 43 percent of these children lived in a household with no working parent, 39 percent lived in a household with one or two parents employed part time, and 18 percent lived in a household with one or two parents working full time. The researchers labeled this figure "Majority of Children in Poverty Live with Parents Who Work." Do you think this interpretation is accurate or misleading?

3. People use graphs to "spin" the truth. Especially in newspapers and other popular media, we find statistics in the form of charts and graphs. Graphs help explain data, showing, for example, an upward or downward trend. But they also give people the opportunity to "spin" data in various ways. What trend we think we see depends, in part, on the time frame used in a graph. Looking at just the last few years, for instance, we would see the U.S. crime rate going downward. But, looking at the last few decades, we would see an opposite trend: The crime rate pushes sharply upward.

The scale used to draw a graph is also important because it lets a researcher "inflate" or "deflate" a trend. Both graphs below present identical data for College Board SAT scores between 1967 and 1995. But the left-hand graph stretches the scale to show a downward trend; the right-hand graph compresses the scale, making the trend disappear. So, understanding what statistics really mean depends on being a careful reader!

Continue the debate . . .

1. Why do you think people are so quick to accept "statistics" as true?

2. From a scientific point of view, is spinning the truth acceptable? What about from a critical approach trying to advance social change?

3. Can you find a news story on some social issue that you think presents biased data or conclusions? What are the biases?

For more information on this topic, please visit these websites....

Data Analysis

Margin of Error

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