There are several undeniable truths about statistics: First and foremost, they can be manipulated, massaged and misstated. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Aw, you can come up with statistics to prove anything…Forty percent of all people know that.”
Second, if bogus statistical information is repeated often enough, it eventually is considered to be true.
As to Point One, consider a presidential debate. In 2012, when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney squared off, the President was heard to declare that "Over the last 30 months, we've seen 5 million jobs in the private sector created."
But 30 months only dates back to January 2010. And the president took office in January 2009. It turns out that in his first year in office, the country lost some 5 million jobs. While things got better, the cumulative job creation in the private sector during Obama's first term is in fact a more humble 125,000.
Romney, for his part, said that "If I'm president I will create -- help create 12 million new jobs in this country with rising incomes." While that may have seemed impressive, it's the exact same figure that had been used by economic forecasters for how many jobs they already expected the economy would add over the next four years given a stable economy. And it had nothing to do with who was in the White House.
As to Point Two, consider these Things We Believe But Shouldn’t:
The teen pregnancy rate is on the rise. No, it isn’t. According to a report in the Washington Post, the teen pregnancy rate in 2009, of about 38 per thousand girls, was 39 percent lower than the 1991 peak of 62. Just four years later, in 2012, it reached a record low of about 29.
People only use 10 per cent of their brains: Nobody knows for sure where this nugget came from, but as psychologist Scott Lilienfeld explains: “The last century has witnessed the advent of increasingly sophisticated technologies for snooping in the brain’s traffic... Despite this detailed mapping, no quiet areas awaiting new assignments have emerged. In fact, even simple tasks generally require contributions of processing areas spread throughout virtually the whole brain.” Which means you’re using all of your brain, even if you don’t feel like it on occasion.
Men think about sex every seven seconds: Calculated over 16 waking hours that adds up to 8,000 salacious thoughts in a day. While we’ve know a few guys who met or maybe even exceeded that mark, a 2011 Ohio State study found that young men think about sex 19 times a day, compared with 10 for young women.
We’re discussing all of this because of the emergence of one Tyler Vigen, a law school student at Harvard, who has once and for all exposed just how absurd statistical data can be in the wrong hands.
He has created a website called Spurious Correlations (found at tylervigen.com) which, he says, isn’t meant to create a distrust for research or even correlative data but instead foster interest in statistics and numerical research. Perhaps. We prefer to think he has a wicked sense of humor.
Using data from the Center for Disease Control and the U.S. Census, he intertwines the numbers to reaches statistical conclusions which are based on real data but which have to actual correlation whatsoever.
In his first example, he has illustrated in graph form that the number of people who trip and fall over their own feet is in direct correlation with the number of lawyers in Nevada.
Next up is a chart that show the number of people murdered by being pushed from high places corresponds with the precipitation in Tuscola County, Mississippi.
Vigen has showed that the age of our Miss Americas declines in concert with the number of murders by steam, hot vapors and hot objects.
Then we are shown that the number of sociology doctorates awarded is in direct proportion to the number of deaths caused by anticoagulants.
By the same measurement, we find that the per capita consumption of mozzarella cheese is in statistical lockstep with civil engineering doctorates awarded.
More intriguing is the chart that illustrates that the number of people who drowned by falling into a swimming pool correlates with the number of films in which Nicolas Cage has appeared.
Where else would you find that the letters in the winning word of the Scripps National Spelling Bee correlates with the number of people killed by venomous spiders.
Or that the total number of political actions committees in the U.S. is matched by the number of people who died falling out of their wheelchair.
All of which recalls the remark from American humorist Evan Esar that statistics is the science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures.