Stats, Polar Bears, and “Truth by Repetition”

When I did marketing for a company that created annuities for the recipients of large court damages, I was armed with alarming statistics I had gleaned from the annuity industry’s publications.  Half of the recipients of large lump sum settlements or damages from personal injury and medical negligence lawsuits had dissipated all of the funds (usually calculated to last a lifetime) within two years or less. More than 75% had blown through all the cash, often millions of dollars, within five years. These figures were accepted as fact everywhere,  and we used them profitably to persuade plaintiffs, lawyers and courts to approve annuity arrangements that would parcel out the funds over the years, keeping the money safe from needy relatives and spending sprees. Then, one day, I decided to track down the studies that were the sources of the statistics I was using.

There weren’t any. I discovered a circular trail, with various sources quoting each other. No studies measured the dissipation of personal injury settlement, for one reason that should have been obvious:  many of these arrangements are confidential. The data doesn’t exist. What had happened was that an annuity salesman had taken studies of lottery winners—who do blow through their winnings at astounding rates—made the dubious assumption that plaintiffs with large settlements behaved similarly (I think someone will be a bit more likely to be profligate with a windfall lottery bonanza than with funds calculated to treat his lung disease), and got himself quoted in a book. Everyone quoted the book, and voila! Instant myth.

I was reminded of this by a provocative post on the blog “Drugmonkey,” written by an NIH researcher, about   “The business of making unsubstantiated personal observations true.” He condemns the common practice of using the media and the internet to repeat non-facts until they take on the weight of truth simply by repetition and certitude. “This is what drives scientists bonkers about the political process and the current state of the news media,” he writes. “Absolutely, sputteringly, gibberingly inchoate. This notion that there is no such thing as objective truth or reality. That all that matters is what you can convince a bare majority of your audience (or voters) to believe.”

As it happens, I came across his post while my jaw was still locked in an open position following the discovery that polar bear populations are at or near an all-time high. Polar bears? Those perilously endangered symbols of the global warming crisis? I have seen all the frightening videos and climate change advocacy pieces showing the adorable Coca-Cola drinkers desperately trying to stay of melting ice floes. I had read material like this, from the National Wildlife Federation:

How are polar bears affected?

•  Population sizes decreasing
•    Sea ice platforms moving farther apart and swimming conditions more dangerous
•    Fewer hunting opportunities and increased scarcity of food

As climate change melts sea ice, the U.S. Geological Survey projects that two thirds of polar bears will disappear by 2050. This dramatic decline in the polar bear is occurring in our lifetime, which is but a miniscule fraction of the time polar bears have roamed the vast Arctic seas...

I, like most of you, simply assumed that whatever doubts I may have about the causes of global warming and other related matters, it was plain fact that the polar bears were in trouble…now.

But they aren’t.

A report by the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee released on January 30, 2008 revealed:

“The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that the polar bear population is currently at 20,000 to 25,000 bears, up from as low as 5,000-10,000 bears in the 1950s and 1960s.  A 2002 U.S. Geological Survey of wildlife in the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain noted that the polar bear populations “may now be near historic highs.”

It’s not just this report that says the bears are doing just fine, thank. Canadian government’s director of wildlife research, widely regarded as the world’s top authority on the creatures, is Canadian scientist Dr. Mitchell Taylor. He says,

“It is just silly to predict the demise of polar bears in 25 years based on media-assisted hysteria…There aren’t just a few more bears. There are a hell of a lot more bears. Scientific knowledge has demonstrated that Inuit knowledge was right.”

Inuits are, of course, the native people who live with polar bears, and they have consistently argued that predictions of impending polar bear extinctions are bunk. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of the Interior, shortly after the Senate report was published, placed the bears on the endangered species list based on climate change projections.

This decision confirmed all those videos…which were based on warnings like those of the National Wildlife Federation…which were projected from global warming models…which were argued to the non-scientifically literate public by Al Gore using…pictures ofdesperately  swimming polar bears!

Once again, circular confirmation.

I am willing to believe that developing climate conditions will be harmful to polar bears, but I don’t like being lied to about it. The National Wildlife Federation’s “Population sizes decreasing” is a flat out lie at a time when the over-all size of the polar bear population is increasing. I don’t like being lied to, I resent being lectured by issue advocates who uncritically believe and pass along lies, and I refuse to trust liars.  Because it is ubiquitous, the polar bear myth had me convinced . That is the unethical phenomenon “Drugmonkey” properly condemned. Truth by repetition.

I don’t mean to pick on global warming, because this insidious form of public dishonesty is everywhere. Advocates for and against marriage keep saying, and newspapers keep printing, that 50% of all marriages end in divorce: there is no such statistic, and it is a blatant over-statement. I believe there is gender discrimination in the workplace, but the famous “women earn 70% of what men do” statistic is pure deceit. Similarly dishonest, and one of the rare fake figures that was ultimately abandoned under pressure, was the “46 million uninsured Americans” figure used by President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and most of the media in order to, like the “facts” already mentioned, make a real problem, health care, look even worse than it is.

On the Right side of the political  spectrum, there are plenty of examples of this phenomenon too.  One particularly irritating one is the assertion that President Obama is a narcissist, obsessed with himself, and the “proof” of this by his frequent the use of word “I” in his speeches.  Fox News and others have even begun counting Obama’s “I”’s. As the blog “Language Log,” explains, the exercise is nonsense, and doesn’t prove a thing. But “President Obama is an arrogant narcissist,” like “President Bush is an idiot,” (Obama has recently mispronounced “corps” and “corpse,” an error that surely would have helped “prove” Bush’s idiocy if he had done the same, and President Bush used “I” a lot, too) is on the way to becoming a “fact” by repetition.

Repeated Spin, exaggeration, fact-fudging, deceit…it’s all dishonesty, regardless of the objective, regardless of whether the lie is comforting or confirms your own beliefs. There is only one way to get determine the truth, unfortunately.  Challenge the assertion. And don’t repeat it until you know it’s true.

6 thoughts on “Stats, Polar Bears, and “Truth by Repetition”

  1. Wasn’t it Hitler and his cronies who figured out that if you tell a lie often enough and vociferously enough that people will come to believe it?

    The televised plea for funds to “save the polar bears” do NOT say that their numbers have increased, and that perhaps in 25 years of “climate change” they may be endangered. No. They tell pure lies. And because they have a “movie star” telling the lies we want to believe them.

    Shame. Shame. Why don’t real scientists get the same play on news shows? We all cry and contribute to the Humane Society and the ASPCA (I do) because we really do know that people abuse pets (specific examples hit the news regularly). But who knows first hand about polar bears? We have to trust the “stars” who plead their case. So we give up part of our limited charitable giving budget to a fraudulent cause. Where does this money go? What investigative reporter is going to find out?

    When the “global warming/climate change” advocates have to resort to proven lies to make their case, then their whole cause becomes suspect.

    I understand the need to curb pollution, etc. But it was my 15-year old son who informed me (through his own research) that the the batteries for the Toyota Prius create more pollution in their very manufacture (in Canada and China) than the standard V-6 internal combustion engine produces in three years. Who knows that? A very few. All they know is that the Prius (which now we know may also kill you) runs on this cool battery that doesn’t pollute. No one seems to know or care what pollution is created in its manufacture. Why don’t we know this? Because there is no advocacy group out there to tell us, and because we’ve had no reason to doubt the”truth” told us by Toyota, Well, now we have a reason to doubt Toyota, so perhaps we should take a look at other reasons to doubt Toyota and other “environmentally friendly” carmakers.

    I am calling upon CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS to (1) investigate the real situation vis-a-vis the population of polar bears (up or down), and the veracity of the plea for funds to “save” them; and (2) investigate the building of the Prius batteries and the pollution their manufacture creates. Even if the pollution sits atop Canada and China, but makes us feel better about automobile pollution in the the US, shouldn’t we care? (I do not include Fox, only because too many environmental terrorists don’t believe a word they say…)

  2. So what you have done is exposed the genesis of the dreaded “the things that we ‘know’ that are not true.”

    These things are more subtle and destructive than simple lies. They are lies appealing to an authority that doesn’t exist, not just mere deception.

    Q: “How do you know that?”
    A: “I heard it on radio or TV or something.”

    Oh. Okay. That’s all I needed.

  3. There is a joke about this.
    “If you understand something and you can prove it, you can publish it in a science journal.

    If you can prove it, but you don’t understand it, you can publish it in a mathematics journal.

    If you understand something, but you can’t prove it, you can publish it in an engineering journal.

    If you don’t understand it, can’t prove it, it isn’t true, and it has already been published somewhere else? Well, there is always the newspaper.”

  4. Pingback: Al Gore’s Unethical New York Times Op-ed « Ethics Alarms

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