Lying with Statistics

Posted on January 16, 2014 by debmeier

To avoid being fooled by statistics requires using the knowledge we already possess. A lost art? I struggle with this constantly.

To print data claiming that: Shanghai and Singapore have a better educated workforce than the USA when they certainly must realize that (1)  neither is a country; and (2) to ignore the fact that China’s low-income workforce are treated as part-time immigrants  in Shanghai, whose children are not allowed to attend their schools and/or in most cases (including Singapore)  live beyond these city’s boundaries, means either purposely misusing data or not using one’s own knowledge. Not to mention the naiveté of accepting any data’s reliability when dealing with a totalitarian regime. These are simple facts that any journalist reporting on these statistics should know. As we gentrify the remaining sections of Manhattan where low-income people of color still reside, we might enter Manhattan in the world’s test score rankings. In fact, we have several states that would rank pretty high up if we decided to call them separate nations, much less excluded the scores of “immigrants.”  It’s bad enough when they—the US media-—take US test score data at face value, much less accepting without question the data from nations we know often lie to us and their own people.

Our dilemma is far more serious than upgrading our math courses in order to better compete with Asia. Where they outdo us is not in having enough highly skilled workers but in low paid ones. Maybe we’ll be more successful competitors if we continue to lower our wage scales to match theirs?  (Which requires getting rid of unions.) If that’s the plan, it’s one that we haven’t been consulted about.

Or, we might insist that all schools math programs give more attention to understanding data (statistics, probability, et al) and less attention to calculus.  A calculus driven math course of study is not only irrelevant to the jobs of the past and future, but our focus directs attention away from precisely the mathematical skills and understanding our economy and citizenship actually need. It leads to many students’ failure to graduate.  What disturbs me most is that few of us were prepared for a world in which understanding how millions and billions differ matters—other than adding zeros, or what the odds are for winning the lottery.  It’s this everyday kind of math illiteracy that we have ignored for far too long in pursuit of a goal that best serves elite interests—if even theirs.  (And I am not anti-calculus! Just first things first.)

Never mind. We seem stuck with a “ruling class” media determined to focus on every weakness they can locate, except their own. Thus the lack of mathematical knowledge found among average Americans becomes more significant than their own failure to grapple with—and make sense of—the data they are fed, most particularly how they could have “missed” the data that led, in hindsight, to explaining the 2008 crash.

http://deborahmeier.com/2014/01/16/lying-with-statistics/

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