Statistics commonly misused in media, professor says
Published: Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, October 25, 2011 05:10
While reading a graduate student's paper in 1995, professor Joel Best encountered a statistic stating, "Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled," which concerned him.
Best said he realized the author was likely trying to avoid plagiarism and reworded the phrasing of the actual statistic, which reported the number of children killed by guns had doubled between 1950 and 1994—a drastically different claim. If the student's statement had been correct, then 35 trillion children would have been gunned down over the course of 35 years.
The sociology professor said this instance illustrated how many people do not pay adequate attention to the significance of details behind numbers and statistics, accepting them without scrutiny.
"We treat numbers as if they are little bits of nature, as though they are real, like rocks," Best said.
Best, the author of "Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists," spoke at Townsend Hall Wednesday afternoon about the need to scrutinize the use of statistics and the way they are displayed.
He compared statistics to jewels, which are manipulated by people to obtain a desired result. People have to alter the shape of jewels to obtain the correct cut and polish, as do facts developed by many statisticians.
"You need to think about where the numbers come from and how they are produced," Best said. "A typical statistics class does not teach this lesson."
Best also said visual representations such as models and graphs can be misleading because they can imply that a situation is worse than it actually it is perceived to be. He said many of these statistics found online, in print and reports are often skewed to "make the statistic seem as scary as possible."
"People may think that since a number is in print, that it is correct, but it is not," Best said.
Junior Lauren Draper said Best taught her to be more careful with statistics and data.
"I'm definitely going to keep what I learned in my mind, it will remind me that I need to be careful," Draper said.
Caroline Golt, a research associate in the plant and social science department, said she frequently works with statistics, and believes the publishing of incorrect statistics is a serious problem.
"The general public that reads the newspaper will be more likely to be mislead with false statistics because they do not have the background to determine what is true and what is false," Golt said.