Backed By Data: Our (Mis)use of Statistics in Political Discussions


Friday, May 25, 2018

One of my favorite things to hate when I watch sports are the meaningless and often arbitrary statistics that the color commentators, analysts, and broadcast teams love to throw out. At times sounding almost as ludicrous as “the Giants are 0-7 when drinking orange Gatorade, as opposed to red” or “LeBron James is the first player since Oscar Robertson to average 30 points, 15 rebounds and 18 assists while balancing two hot dogs on his head and shooting off one foot.”

It is a phenomenon that exists in most areas of discussions, the post hoc cramming of statistics into an already formed narrative. While many say we need to ‘just discuss the facts,’ it is at times the facts and statistics themselves that deteriorate our ability to have civilized conversations– particularly when it comes to our national political discourse.

In the scientific method, data analysis leads to conclusions. Our current political climate has flipped the method, instead analyzing whether your results align with hypotheses and then seeking out the statistics to fit a narrative. Rather than debating and discussing the results of reliable statistics, the opposition largely states a conclusions and uses statistics as a weapon, whether they’re valid or not.

Take for example the national discussion on the gender wage gap, the belief that women make 80 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. The top hits after a quick google search are “The narrowing, but persistent, gender gap in pay,” “Why men need to believe in the wage gap,” “Women have pushed for equal pay for decades. It’s sad how little progress we’ve made.”

These aren’t the ramblings of your local Starbucks barista blogging before her 3pm shift, but respected mainstream media organizations and think tanks with access to peer reviewed academic research on the issue. However, the studies cited in the articles all point to a multivariate explanation rather than a singular sexist cause. Nevertheless, each article asserts that the pay gap has a singular cause, using the data not as a true proof, as it proves the opposite, but rather as a bludgeon.

No one issue can be explained by a singular factor. Multivariate analysis is a bedrock principle of any respected research study, as reality is often complex and involves multiple variables to explain data. In the case of the gender wage gap, the number fails to take into account the number of hours worked, the experience level of the workers or the actual job classification of the employees. In essence, discrimination could potentially be a factor; it may even be the largest factor. An honest discussion would consider all the other factors shown within the studies, rather than blindly cite one statistic as proof.

Our current mode of discussion involves too much dishonesty and manipulation on both sides of the aisle. People scramble to be proven right and upheld as champions of their respective. We are at a point in our political climate where civility in debate is dead, and, for the sake of intellectual honesty, those who claim to be speaking from a scholarly position backed by facts and figures must subject themselves to a higher standard of debate. In debate, nobody has to be nice, but they should be honest.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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