Trying to use statistics in a post-evidence political world

Ahead of the presidential debate last night, my Statistics class came up with a short list of guidelines for making sense of the statistics that were sure to be deployed in the discussion. Here is my memory of those strategies:

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  1. What is the source of the data?
  2. How was the statistic obtained (sample, questions asked, etc.)?
  3. Is the number unreasonable or too good/too bad to be true?
  4. How is the statistic utilized in an argument or what are the implications of the statistic?

These are good general tips for approaching any statistic utilized in the public realm. Asking good questions about data helps us move beyond accepting all numbers because they are numbers or rejecting all numbers because they can be manipulated. Some statistics are better than others and some are deployed more effectively than others.

But, after watching the debate, I wonder if these strategies make much sense in our particular political situation. Numbers were indeed used by both candidates. This suggests they still have some value. But, it would be easy for a viewer to leave thinking that statistics are not trustworthy. If every number can be debated – methods, actual figures, implications – depending on political view or if every number can be answered with another number that may or may not be related, what numbers can be trusted? President Trump throws out unverified numbers, challenges other numbers, and looks for numbers that boost him.

When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005, he hinted at this attitude toward statistics:

Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don’t mean the argument over who came up with the word …

It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President [George W. Bush] because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist. It’s the fact that he’s certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true? …

Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.

Combine numbers with ideology and what statistics mean can change dramatically.

This does not necessarily mean a debate based solely on numbers would lead to clearer answers. I recall some debate exchanges in previous years where candidates argued they each had studies to back up their side. In that instance, what is a viewer to decide (probably not having read any of the studies)? Or, if science is politicized, where do numbers fit? Or, there might be instances where a good portion of the electorate thinks statistics based arguments are not appropriate compared to other lines of reasoning. And the issue may not be that people or candidates are innumerate; indeed, they may know numbers all too well and seek to exploit how they are used.

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