Self Defense Against Rogue Statistics
by Dean Rieck
Mark Twain is often quoted as saying, “There are three types of lies - lies, damn lies, and statistics.” That’s another way of saying that while statistics are useful, they can be slippery. Much of the problem with statistics is ignorance about how they are created and what they mean. However, many people, including some anti-gun zealots, purposely misuse statistics, especially polls and surveys, to deceive the public.
Unfortunately, people in the media are equally ignorant about numbers, so they are just as easily deceived and become accomplices in the deception. It works like this: An anti-gun group runs across a statistic that appears to support their cause. They don’t check the veracity of the statistic. They just write a quick news release and rush it to their media contacts.
A busy editor receives the news release, decides to run with it, and hands it to a staff reporter to write up a story. The reporter, who is overworked and underpaid and is likely to be at least a little sympathetic to gun control, doesn’t question the statistic because it just seems to make sense. Plus, since the anti-gun group has a name such as “Americans for Gun Safety” or “American Hunters and Shooters Association,” the reporter doesn’t question their motives because it appears that the group is genuinely concerned about safety, as opposed to the NRA or Buckeye Firearms Association who are openly (and honestly) partisan.
So the statistic gets reported. The public gets deceived. And the truth gets buried under one more shovel full of anti-gun B.S.
So what can you do? The best form of self-defense against deception is knowledge. We’ve discussed how the anti-gun groups funnel their slippery statistics to the media. Now let’s look at how the statistics get mangled in the first place.
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You don’t have to be a mathematician to understand these things, you just have to learn to recognize a few of the ways numbers are misused and misreported.
The Phony Trend
Reporters have a variety of standard templates they use to frame a story. One of their favorites is the “trend” article. News is about things changing, so anytime there seems to be a statistic showing a trend, it’s breathlessly reported as big news. The problem is, reporters aren’t very picky about what qualifies as a trend.
For example, a Gallup Poll from October 2006 indicated that 56 percent of adults nationwide felt that laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict. In 2002, the same poll indicated the number was 51 percent. That means there was a 5 point increase in the number of people who wanted stricter laws.
What a great trend to report! More and more Americans are wanting stricter gun control laws. Right? Not quite. The trend is phony. This poll has been going on since at least 1990. At that time, 78 percent said they wanted stricter laws for the sale of firearms. So while the numbers wiggle up and down each year for a variety of reasons, the actual trend for gun control has been downward over the 17-year life of the poll, from the high 70s to the mid to low 50s.
The Cherry Picked Numbers
Cherry picking is selecting one fact and ignoring another. A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in April 2007 asked adults nationwide, "What do you think is more important -- to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?" Of those surveyed, 60 percent said that controlling gun ownership was more important, while 32 percent said that the right to own guns was more important.
That would appear to be a damning statistic, until you look at another question in the very same survey which asked, "Would you favor or oppose a law that banned the sale of handguns?" Of those surveyed, only 37 percent favored such a law while 55 percent opposed it. So while most ordinary people don’t necessarily support idealistic pro-gun positions, that doesn’t mean they back gun bans.
Experienced and honest researchers know that people have complex opinions about issues. What questions are asked and how they are phrased will dramatically affect the answers. It is impossible to understand how people feel about an issue by asking just one question.
The Unreported Facts
If you must testify before a court, you are not just asked to swear to tell the truth, you are also asked to swear to tell the “whole” truth. The reason is that telling some truth isn’t good enough. A little truth can lead to a big lie when you don’t consider all the facts.
Every time there is a tragedy involving firearms, for example, journalists trot out another favorite template: Why did this tragedy happen and what can we do about it? Inevitably this leads to police and concerned citizens wringing their hands about where the bad guy got the gun and creating the impression that everyone thinks access to guns is the culprit.
But an ABC News Poll from April 2007 asked people what they think is the primary cause of gun violence in America. Only 18 percent said “availability of guns.” The two biggest reasons cited by those surveyed were the “way parents raise kids” at 35 percent and “popular culture” at 40 percent. But you’re not likely to hear that in the coverage of any shooting. It just doesn’t fit the story template.
The Illusion of Certainty
Polls and surveys are seldom as accurate as you may think. They may seem that way because numbers have an almost magical credibility. But every poll has what is called a “margin of error.” That means that, even if you assume the poll was conducted correctly, the actual numbers could lie anywhere within a range of numbers because of potential error built into the polling process.
For example, let’s look at another question from that 2007 ABC News Poll. People were asked “Do you favor or oppose stricter gun control laws in this country?” In 2000, 67 percent said “yes.” In 2007, the number was 61 percent. But the margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, meaning that either of those previous figures could be 3.5 points higher or lower. So in 2000 the number might be anywhere from 70.5 percent to 63.5 percent, while the number from 2007 might be anywhere from 64.5 percent to 57.5 percent.
What is the actual number? Who knows? All this tells you is that it’s somewhere north of half the people surveyed.
A Final Word about Truth
You may wonder why I cited that last statistic, since it’s not exactly pro-gun. The reason is simple: pro-gun activists can play a little loose with the numbers too. And a statistic like this is likely to be ignored or twisted for political reasons. I want to show that I’m not afraid of the numbers no matter what they show, pro or con. That’s because I want to know the truth. And so should you.
Never try to hide or twist a particular statistic just because you don’t like it. The overall truth is on our side even if certain individual statistics may appear to be otherwise. The easiest way to win any argument is to be credible and right on the facts. So be accurate and honest about your statistics. Always. Anti-gun activists are afraid of the truth. You shouldn’t be.
I’ve given you a few ways that statistics are misused and poorly reported. There are many more ways to use statistics to deceive, but I hope this gets you to start asking questions about the numbers you see. Specifically, I recommend that you always look at the actual poll, survey, or study being cited. Almost always you will find that the truth is not what it appears to be in a news report.
One thing I know for a fact. The more educated people are about guns, hunting, shooting sports, personal protection, and crime, the less anti-gun they are. The idea that Americans are anti-gun or that crime is a gun problem is a not just a lie, it’s a damned lie.
Note: The source for all the statistics in this article is www.pollingreport.com/guns.htm.