lies, damned lies, statistics, toby elwin, jim carrey, blog

The Top 3 Statistical Debunking Criteria

statistics, toby elwin, blog, jim carrey
“Statistics made me do it”

There are, as some believe, three kinds of lies:

  1. Lies,
  2. Damned lies, and
  3. Statistics

People can tell lies with words, but that doesn’t make words bad. By the same token, people can tell lies using statistics, but that doesn’t make statistics bad. There are statistical debunking criteria for all occasions, even the courtroom.

Statistics is like a foreign language. If you don’t study a foreign language, you won’t are unlikely to comprehend the conversation. By the same token, if you don’t study statistics, you won’t comprehend it.

The problem with statistical information is not just the fact that some people lie with it. The root of the problem is misinformation. You have heard the phrase “I know just enough to be dangerous”. Well, what happens when someone writes an article or gives a talk, using statistics that they don’t know much about? There is a good chance they will use them incorrectly. They didn’t set out to intentionally tell a lie, they just reached a little beyond their ability and failed to communicate some key information, or communicated some information they should not have.

If you are reading an article or listening to a talk and the statistical information is difficult to understand, that should be a warning sign it may be designed to be over your head. Think about some of the fine print legalese you have seen in loan documents and such. You probably feel pretty leery about that information, unless you are an attorney and you understand the language.

Statistical information may intend to confuse, but does this mean it is intended to confuse mare than legalese and should be assumed as a lie? What can you do if you feel in over your head with some statistical information? Basically, “Trust, but Verify”, as Ronald Reagan used to say.

I’m sure there are plenty of books on this subject so I probably won’t do justice to the subject, but as someone I trust, who is a professional statistician that has worked on thousands of research studies said to me, “maybe there is some value to what I will toss out there for others to debunk … I mean comment on”.

Source, Sign, and Sample

So, my list of the top three statistical debunking criteria require you to question:

  1. Source,
  2. Sign, and
  3. Sample

Source: Who or what is the source of the information? What is their agenda? What are their credentials? If the communicator has a hidden agenda, they may be more likely to use statistics to their advantage. If the author has a Ph.D., they might have a hidden agenda, but more than likely they want to protect their integrity and I would expect them to be less likely to like using statistics.

If the author has nothing to lose, so-to-speak, and they stand to gain something if they persuade you to believe what they are saying, you might want to “Trust, but Verify”.

Sign: If you detect inaccuracies in some of the information from the source, the author or speaker, that should be a warning sign that they are reaching beyond their ability to intentionally misinform you. This should lend suspect to the integrity of the entire communication, including the statistics.

If a key piece of information is missing, like the sample size, that should be a warning sign. For example: More than 75% of those surveyed agreed that the project was an utter disaster. For all you know, the sample size was four, not a very representative sample of a population of size 100,000 or whatever.

The communicator should know the audience and speak to their level of statistical understanding. If a person is giving a talk to a group of Ph.D. statisticians, they don’t have to stop and explain basic statistical concepts to prepare them for the rest of the talk.

On the other hand, if the intended audience is expected to have only a basic familiarity with statistics (e.g. a statistics 101 course in college), then the speaker or author should take more time to explain the methodology so that the listener/reader can fully grasp what is being said. If the communicator appears “disconnected” with the audience: warning sign.

Sample: A credible communicator with good intent would articulate the limitations of their claims. Every statistical study has limitations. A small sample size limits ability to generalize the results to other settings for example.

Or, the sample might be biased.

Or, important variables (confounding variables) may have been omitted from the analysis which could alter the findings.

Statistical Debunk

The communicator should document the procedures they used to conduct the study. Or, they are voicing an opinion and referring to statistics, they should cite the source of the statistics. Maybe they should explain the methodology used by the source. Was the sample size a fair representation of the population, did the researchers use sound research methodology.

It comes down to: if you feel you are in over your head regarding some statistical information, you have to first ask: is it me? or is it him?

Maybe you just don’t understand the language well enough to know if the person is telling the truth or not.

On the other hand, if the person has a shady reputation and they are trying to sell you some ocean front property in Arizona, then he just might be telling a lie with statistics as well.

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