The misleading use of statistics to deceive, mislead, and confuse the public is epidemic in both the public and the media, with too many examples to cite. Sometimes the statistics are wrong, but just assumed to be correct, like the persistent myth that 50% of all American marriages end in divorce. Sometimes the individual who uses the statistic uses them sincerely but incorrectly to support an argument that the numbers don’t really support, such as columnist Richard Cohen’s recent use of international longevity statistics to “prove” America has an inferior health care system. (Message to Cohen: Freedom includes freedom to take risks, and America has always had a risk-taking culture, which is something to be proud of. Health care is just part of the longevity equation; life-style is a large component, and perhaps the largest. Caged animals live longer than those in the wild, but their quality of life is much worse. The relative merits of the U.S. health care system is subject to debate, but longevity statistics do not settle the issue.)
And sometimes the statistics are just pure, blatant deceit, designed to mislead by the government and relayed uncritically by a news media that is either too eager to support the Obama Administration and too lazy to apply critical reasoning.
Today’s example: as the furor grows over virtual sexual molestation and mistreatment of innocent air passengers under the Transportation Security Administration’s new procedures at airports (such as here, here, and here), the TSA is rushing to defend itself, and has come up with this argument: the complainers are a small minority, and the vast majority of the country—80%, in fact— approves of the new procedures. This morning, the Sunday talk shows cited this statistic over and over again as if it settled the issue.
The statistic is completely misleading. Guess why. Oh, come on…think about it. You have to be smarter than CBS, NBC and ABC.
According to the Department of Transportation’s own statistics, only 40% of Americans fly commercial airlines. Of course the 60% who never fly support “enhanced security procedures” for the 40% that do. First of all, they have no idea what the procedures are like. Second, they assume that they benefit from the searches and have to give up nothing at all—not convenience, time, comfort or dignity. Their approval of procedures that will be inflicted on strangers, therefore, means nothing. Where is the poll of those who fly? If 80% of them support the procedures, that would be significant. But using the current poll for reference, that’s unlikely. If we assume that almost all of the non-fliers—the 60% of the public– are perfectly happy to have me molested to minimize the chance that a terrorist will slip through security and fly a plane into their homes, that leaves 20 of the approving 80% unaccounted for. 20% is half of the 40% who fly, and a 50% disapproval rate by those who have to endure the screening is significant.
Even that number is substantially misleading, though. The new “touch-your-junk-and-feel-you-up” patdowns have only been in place for less that a month and only a small percentage of flyers have actually experienced them. I have, more than once, and I can testify to the fact that they are a lot more disturbing in practice than in theory. The real statistic that we should be hearing from the TSA and the media is this one: What percentage of passengers who have been forced to undergo the intrusive procedures approve of them?
I guarantee it isn’t 80%. I bet it is closer to 20%, and probably lower than that.
What then, do we call the statistic being cited to show that complaints about the patdowns just reflect the views of a small, vocal minority of cranky, ultra-sensitive, unpatriotic Americans?