I once worked for a magazine where my job was taking statistical analysis and spinning it to look like we were the best magazine in the country… without lying, of course. This gave me valuable insight on how to read articles to see the story behind the story.
Facts, information and studies are just boring facts, information and studies… until someone needs to reference them, then they are marketing materials, and are somehow more glamourous.
I thought I’d offers some tips on sifting through the BS.
How to manipulate statistics without lying:
(Creating the perfect truthful lie)
- Cherry pick information – Reference only the years of the study that benefit your point.
- Hold that thought – If using a range of years, stop before a year that has a statistical turning point, or doesn’t benefit you.
- See no evil – Do not acknowledge changes in the control group that impact the study, unless it benefits your point.
- Hear no evil – If there is a way to change terminology that can therefore debunk the study or include other factors that weren’t in the study, by all means do so if it helps your cause.
- Speak no evil – Reference the topic of the study or the headline, rather than the actual information, if it suits your needs.
Here, I’ll use a recent headline as an example to show you what I’m talking about. Let’s see how this writer, AWR Hawkins, spins and references a Washinton Post article:
Let me break it down for you:
#1 – Use only the years that benefit you.
This study references shooting numbers that stop in 2010 or sometimes 2013, because to make a point, sometimes the 2010 numbers work best, in others the 2013 are more powerful.
#2 – Hold that thought
2014 & 2015 saw a lot of gun violence. People who want gun regulation reference this year, and sometimes this year only. People who don’t want gun regulation pretend 2014 and 2015 never happened.
#3 Changes in Control Group or Society.
It’s important, not only to look at numbers, but terminology. This example article claims that more people own guns but there are less shooting related deaths. Is it getting this number from the number of Americans divided by the number of guns sold or the number of people who are registered gun owners? Important to clarify because many people who own one gun, may own several guns, so not only do lots of Americans own guns, but also many Americans own multiple guns.
One man alone could skew the numbers. Like this guy in SC with 10,000 guns:
Also, with more Americans owning guns to keep for security reasons, this drives up the number of Americans who own guns but aren’t properly trained to use them. Thus creating a situation where people are shooting and missing. This fact is important to note because that creates a lot of gun shot victims who actually live, and therefore aren’t counted into the “gun deaths” category.
Also in the past 20 years the increased use of cell phones has saved lives because people are able to call for help sooner after being shot. Before cell phones when you got shot at a gas station, you had to drag your bleeding body all the way over to a pay phone. Now you just have to reach in your pocket.
#4 – Change Terminology
There were very few places labeled “Gun Free Zones” twenty years ago. I can only think of post offices and airports from my childhood. Now almost every public space has a sign up saying that firearms are not allowed. Places that have this now that didn’t 20 years ago: most restaurants, doctor’s offices, grocery stores, schools, pre-schools, coffee shops, etc. Basically any public place that doesn’t want people shot there will throw up a no-guns sign in an effort to cover their own ass in the event there is a mass shooting in their establishment.
Why are there more gun free zones? Because there are more shootings. Even the term “gun control” implies that the government will control all guns, whereas the term “gun regulation” implies that they will merely regulate gun ownership, like they do cars, motorcycles and boats. Even fishing in the US requires a permit, but it’s not referred to as Fish Control.
#5. Reference Topic Only
If you see anyone quote the headline of this article as fact, 99% of Americans prefer fart smells over orange smells, it means they never even read this article that has absolutely nothing to do with orange smells, fart smells or 99% of Americans, and they merely took the title and ran with it. People take information and catalog it in their brain as fact. Sometimes when people find out that what they though was fact was indeed not, they refuse to re-catagorize that in their brain. That would be too much work to go back and relabel all those thoughts from true to false. It’s like updating your hard-drive. The fact to fiction conversion process involves and entire reboot of the system and nobody want to stop working for that.
Because of the difficult statistical truth conversion reboot, many people don’t even realize that they are manipulating statistics. Some writers, companies and organizations purposefully manipulate data, but a lot do it without even realizing they are. They are just skimming for the information and are drawn to the part that is interesting to them, and happens to also prove their point.
So be aware of statistical marketing, or starketing, or markistical research. Both people for gun-regulation and against it are tweaking the numbers. So when considering an issue, you have to factor in a little common sense. Guns are a weapon designed to kill, so do more guns create more deaths or more lives?