29 May 2008

on statistics

"There are lies, damned lies and statistics." Benjamin Disraeli

My friend Fantasy recently posted about the media and negativity in America. Her posting is very thought provoking and well worth a visit . The article she references includes the following polling which was originally published by Newsweek:

"The Newsweek poll alleges that 67 percent of Americans are unhappy with
the direction the country is headed and 69 percent of the country is unhappy
withthe performance of the president. In essence 2/3s of the citizenry just
ain't happy and want a change."

When statistics and polling results are used without specific background information they are easily manipulated and misrepresented. For example, how do your feelings about the above quote change given different polling scenarios:

1) several thousand refugees were interviewed inside the Superdome three days after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans

2) last week a random land-line phone poll was taken of one hundred New York City inhabitants (in many large cities, people opt to have cell phones only, especially younger people) asking for their views on the latest State of the Union address

3) twelve members of the white house janitorial staff were polled on their thoughts about the impending cuts in their retirement benefits

4) during the annual San Francisco Aids Walk, random participants were asked what they thought of the President's new push for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman

5) at their annual conference, forty thousand members of the National Education Association replied to questions regarding the USA being ranked 18th out of 24 nations in education

Does each of these situations cause you to look at the quote, "2/3s of the citizenry just ain't happy and want a change", a little differently? I hope so.

I don't like to be manipulated. I don't like when my teenagers try, and I sure as hell don't like it when the media tries. Responsible media should always define their polling and statistics with where, when, who, how and why. Responsible citizens should always ask themselves, " do one hundred New Yorkers speak for all Americans? Are they a broad cross-spectrum of who we are?"


anglophile said...

Well, sure. I never pay attention to those polls. I don't care what everyone else thinks, to be honest. I make up my mind from thinking on my own, not wondering what most people think. And I hate when they interview "the man on the street", too. Because what the hell do I care what some dope on the street has to say?

I suppose the bigger issue is that we would like to trust our media to be giving us at least somewhat unbiased information. I am just cynical enough to think that almost never happens. So I try to vary my news sources. I figure I might as well hear about things from both sides.

lizardrinking said...

Yet there are also the statistics that do not get publicised because they do not suit the slant that mainstream media may wish to push (at least according to my friend Chomsky) - it is not just the non-clarification of the sources, and the statistics which are publicised that are worrying, but also just which statistics are ignored.