Be Very Afraid: Why Fake Statistics Become “True”

"Those nachos were COLD!!!"

“Those nachos were COLD!!!”

Last week, I wrote about how fake statistics become “true,” after Gabriella Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly asserted as fact that “85% of all children killed by gunfire worldwide die in the U.S.” while ABC’s Diane Sawyer tut-tutted approvingly. Credible advocate, shocking statistic, passive, lazy and biased journalist, politically correct objective—all the elements were in place. We will hear this lie for decades now, probably in a future Presidential debate.

Now the perceptive and watchful James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal has found a smoky gun that tells us much about why we get so many bad statistics, and why the media supports them. A U.S. World and News Report article combined the recent passage of  the Violence Against Women Act with the upcoming Super Bowl, to get this:

“Urban myths rarely have a useful purpose other than to confound, outrage, and frighten people into passing them along. But there’s a silver lining to this one—the idea that Super Bowl Sunday is linked to the highest incidences of domestic abuse in the country. While experts in the field dismiss that theory, they value the increased attention paid to domestic violence on the occasion.

“‘The Super Bowl does not cause domestic violence, and it doesn’t increase domestic violence, but it does increase the public’s awareness of the issue, which will help victims learn about help and resources,” says Cindy Southworth, vice president of development and innovation at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.'”

Oh. Well then the lie is all right then!

To begin with, the link between Super Bowl and domestic violence is no “urban myth,” like “The Hook” and the obscene caller (and killer) in the house. Calling it that is deception by U.S. News, because it disperses accountability for what was a very intentional lie. The fake statistic was peddled in 1993 by women’s rights activists and spread by the biased and incompetent media, just like the 85% lie. (Note that U.S. News’ URL for the story is “is-domestic-violence-most-common-on-super-bowl-sunday,” almost two decades after it was conclusively established that the answer is “No!”)’ The occasionally accurate Snopes site reveals the sordid truth about the dishonest representation, recording its origin with a pre-Super Bowl press conference by women’s groups in 1993. Then columnists and journalists took the hike, and ran the falsehood far down the field.  Snopes notes ruefully that the corrections and retractions following the initial disinformation campaign had far less visibility and prominence than the original lies, so the fake statistic is still believed.

And, as Taranto pointed out, the U.S. News article suggests that’s a good thing. This is how many activists and a shocking number of reporters think. Al Gore has explained that while some of his “facts” in his global warming documentary were indeed exaggerated, the public will only act when it is frightened, horrified, or angry, so these misrepresentations qualify as “white lies.” Some global warming scientists have argued that including the uncertainties and complexities of their research in reports just confuse the public and make policy-makers less bold, so it is better to represent the data as more unequivocal and certain than it is. Bad statistics have virtually defined the current gun control debate; it is just that the media is offended by the bad stats offered by gun advocates, while Mark Kelly’s bad stats are “good” bad stats, like the Super Bowl/wife-beating link, and those are allowed to stand largely unchallenged…for our benefit, of course.

Think hard about this. If you conclude this is Orwellian, totalitarian logic, you are correct. If advocates and policy-makers can’t persuade us about the wisdom of their position with full disclosure of the facts, then their positions are not as strong as they think they are. There is too much tolerance of lying today, too much for a healthy democracy, too much to ensure that society will improve rather than rot. I know I have been harping on this theme lately, but I don’t manufacture the issues; they come to me.

Lies concocted to mislead the public so they do the “right thing” must be condemned, not happily celebrated, as Cindy Southworth suggests. This method of public opinion manipulation has been used in the service of at least as much evil as worthy causes, and we must reject it as wrong—dishonest, disrespectful, unfair, irresponsible, and arrogant. Any reporter or journalist who allies herself with such efforts should be jettisoned from the profession. We cannot govern ourselves wisely when we are fed well-intentioned lies. Indeed, there is serious doubt that we can govern ourselves wisely at all. We surely don’t need this impediment.


Pointer: Best of the Web

Sources: Snopes, U.S. News

Graphic: Daily News

16 thoughts on “Be Very Afraid: Why Fake Statistics Become “True”

  1. The innocence Project has recently achieved their 300th DNA exoneration. How dare Marcotte state that the stats are exaggerated for the falsely accused? Either she is shockingly ignorant of the world around her, or she only cares about injustice when it’s perpetrated against women.

    • Ummm, 300 is a number with no context. Is it 300 exonerated out of 1000 accused? Out of 10k? A million? Over what period of time? For 50 states, that is an average of 6 per state.

      I applaud the Innocence Project for its work in these cases. However, just throwing the number out there has no meaning until we can see statistics that give a basis for comparison.

  2. Oh, please. If you want to stop the lies, start by holding yourself to higher standards. Here’s what Southworth said:

    “The Super Bowl does not cause domestic violence, and it doesn’t increase domestic violence, but it does increase the public’s awareness of the issue, which will help victims learn about help and resources,” says Cindy Southworth, vice president of development and innovation at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

    To explain the fallacy, Southworth says, “you have to sort of step back and think about what domestic violence is, and it’s not an explosion and it’s not out-of-control anger. Instead, it’s a pattern of power and control.” Victims of abuse face the greatest risk “when they try to break away from a controlling partner, and that can happen on any day of the year,” she says.

    Southworth is very clearly trying to debunk the Super Bowl fallacy. Yet you describe this as her suggesting lies should be “happily celebrated.” That’s a flat-out lie on your part. The most you could fairly accuse Southworth of, is seeing a silver lining in a bad situation. But pointing out a silver lining in a bad situation, is not the same thing as “happily celebrating” the bad situation.

    Some global warming scientists have argued that including the uncertainties and complexities of their research in reports just confuse the public and make policy-makers less bold, so it is better to represent the data as more unequivocal and certain than it is.

    Please provide links to in-context quotes of multiple “global warming scientists” (they’re called climatologists) unambiguously saying this.

    • I will if and when I get time Barry. I’m stunned anyone would need any cites for this at all. The public discussion of global warming has been set at an infantile level, leading to policy-makers like Nancy Pelosi saying idiotic things like, “I saw global warming!” Many columnists and commentators have excused over-simplifying in this and other policy areas. I notice you didn’t question Gore’s endorsement of the practice. In a publication called Grist, Gore said in a 2007 interview (responding to a question about scaring people with his apocalyptic global warming scenarios):

      “…I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are, and how hopeful it is that we are going to solve this crisis.” Gore was advised by and collaborated with climatologists on “An Inconvenient Truth”…I guess you think he was the only one involved in the project who had this attitude. I don’t recall any climatologists debunking the excesses and oversimplification in Gore’s documentary at the time, just the global warming skeptics. Why is that, do you think?

      Your defense of Southworth is unpersuasive. Since domestic violence has nothing whatsoever to do with the Super Bowl, why was she bringing up the Super Bowl in the context of domestic violence at all? If she’s not endorsing the good results of a lie, what does “but it does increase the public’s awareness of the issue, which will help victims learn about help and resources.” It does that because of an ongoing lie and nothing else. I didn’t misrepresent what she’s doing in the least. She’s clearly saying that there’s a good side to the outcome of the lie and the persistent myth that resulted. Another benefit is that she gets to pontificate at Super Bowl time, so she used her opportunity to give some real information. I’m not impressed.

      “She was trying to debunk—“”Please” right back ay ya.. Is there ANY dishonest behavior by your favored interest groups that you won’t rush to defend by seizing the slimmest reed available? The article was headlined to exploit the phony link between domestic violence and the Super Bowl; Southworth took advantage of an opportunity created by that fake link–it’s mind boggling that you would deny the phenomenon when the piece is such a blatant example of exploiting an untruth to get publicity for the same interests that created the untruth in the first place!

      IF Southworth said, “The Superbowl has nothing to do with domestic violence, and that statistic never should have been claimed as truth,” without the “on the other hand” addition, that would have been unqualified debunking. You think the most I can suggest is that she sees a silver lining? Well, since that was the intro to the article, I’d say that would be the least I could say. It certainly isn’t fair is to say I’m “lying” because I characterize her statement, “it does increase the public’s awareness of the issue, which will help victims learn about help and resources” as “happily celebrating.” Did she say it with a frown? Did she say we should be glad of that? The definition of celebrate I was referencing was “to hold up or play up for public notice.” It wassnot a lie, because I completely believe it, and it was also accurate. You just want to deny the obvious. OK, the “happy” part was speculation, but she didn’t seem unhappy to me.

      You are wrong, and obnoxious in the process. The phenomenon is real, and you know it. Your reflex is to attack me for pointing it out. That 78 cents stat is still working for you too…want to call me a liar for flagging that one as well? But it did help get the Lilly Ledbedder Act through, so that’s another “silver lining.”

      • Jack, I notice that you didn’t directly quote a single climatologist. The fact is, climate skeptics have spread many lies (for instance, by quoting passages from stolen emails out of context in a way that significantly distorted their meaning). Given the sordid history of climate skeptics lying about what climatologists have said, it’s unreasonable of you to expect me to simply take your word for it when you refuse to provide any actual quotes to support your dubious claim.

        Even if you would never deliberately lie about that, how can I know that the source you’re depending on hasn’t deceived you with a lie, if you refuse to say what your source is?

        “Since domestic violence has nothing whatsoever to do with the Super Bowl, why was she bringing up the Super Bowl in the context of domestic violence at all?”

        Obviously, she didn’t bring it up – the reporter brought it up, by calling her organization and asking for a quote about the super bowl/dv connection. And she gave a truthful answer – there is no super bowl/dv connection, we’re glad whenever people pay attention to our issue, but our issue has nothing to do with the Super Bowl.

        (Yes, she could hypothetically have given a more perfect answer – just as you could have hypothetically given more perfect answers when you were interviewed on O’Reilly. You argued to me, persuasively and correctly, that you could not be fairly expected to provide perfect answers covering all possible bases in that circumstance, and that you did your duty by answering the questions you were asked truthfully. Surely that same principle applies to Ms. Southworth.)

        This goes back to your refusal to give the benefit of the doubt to people you don’t agree with. There is an obvious and reasonable way to read what Southworth said that doesn’t paint her as a horrible person happily celebrating lies. I do not doubt you mean it well, but the way you choose to read, searching for phrases people say that can be interpreted to mean horrid things, contributes to the ongoing erosion of our political and civic culture, because it encourages debates based on personal attacks and finding least charitable interpretations of what others say.

        It’s simply untrue, by the way, that I defend all statements from interest groups whose politics I agree with, as you’d know if you gave it a second thought (did I defend the claim that gun rights folks “heckled”?).

        Finally, I wrote a series of posts about the wage gap a decade ago; if you really want to know what I think about pay gap statistics, I’ll be happy to share the links with you.

        • 1. I’d love those links.
          2. It was 2 O’Clock AM—I never hold anyone responsible for tone at 2 AM. I am also hyper-sensitive at @ AM.
          3. If it makes you happy, I’ll disclaim “celebrate.” The idea wasn’t to paint her as a horrible person, although I think the article itself was horrible.
          4. The post was about why fake statistics keep getting used. Here statement illustrates why—taken factually, there’s nothing wrong with what she said, just that she was able to say it.
          5. The “urban myth” description was the worst part—that really does duck responsibility, which is shared by the media and the advocates themselves.
          6. So almost 20 years after a fake stat, the news media, which uncritically perpetuated it as true, and the issue activists, who unscrupulously manufactured it, are still getting mileage out of it 18 Super Bowls later, but now by wring articles about how it’s not true, and incidentally, here’s some more information about domestic violence.
          7. And now that I write that, THAT’S the way I should have framed the article originally.
          8. By the way, both ends and the middle (like the “50% of all marriages end in divorce: stat) do this. The anti-climate change gang falsely claimed that there have been 16 straight years of no global warning, and that stat is now repeated every day, though it has been clearly debunked.
          9. I’ll try to find those quotes if it kills me.

          • Here are the two posts I wrote about the gender wage gap that I think most closely discuss the concerns I’ve seen you write about:

            Different ways of measuring the pay gap

            What Causes the Wage Gap?

            And then you can find a whole list of my posts on the subject here. Keep in mind I wrote these about a decade ago, so the links have probably died and the stats are not up to date. Still, I stand by nearly all the arguments I made back then.

            2. As for making me happy, what would really make me happy is a million dollars and for someone to do a new Broadway revival of “Assassins.” But I’ll accept your withdrawal of “celebrating” as a start. :-p

            3. I actually think that the Snopes article (which mainly relied on the reporting of two anti-feminists) is a bit unfair. There were several articles in mainstream newspapers prior to the 1993 press conference that would have given feminists of the time a good-faith, albeit mistaken, belief that there was a real increase in DV cases coinciding with the Super Bowl; and the people at the press conference truthfully noted that the evidence was anecdotal. Since – as you said earlier this thread – a good faith but erroneous belief is not a lie, I’m not convinced that it’s fair to call the feminists at that press conference liars.

            That said, we’re talking about an event that happened almost a quarter-century ago, so I’m not concerned enough to argue the matter in detail.

            • Thanks sincerely for all of this, Barry, and the last point particularly. Many bad stats are spread without dishonesty or malice; the unethical part comes when activists resist the facts that show the stat was in error, or quietly allow it to persist. The “50%” figure for divorces is one that is used by people who don’t know any better.I think, however, that when so many people still believe bad stats that are decades old, the group that originally circulated the mistaken statistic has been less than diligent in correcting the record—and that’s the nicest way to put it.

  3. I’ve come to call the practice of citing or defending dishonest statistics, stories, and narratives the Truer than True Fallacy. That is, the lie serves to validate something larger that is believed to be true, so it magically partakes of truth, becoming truer than true. My first real experience with this variety of True Believer was in the mid-1980’s when a purported speech by a Native American named Chief Seattle, which had been quoted and re-quoted for years by environmentalists, was conclusively revealed to have been made up. Didn’t matter, sulked those who had been passing it around. The alleged problem it spoke to (destruction of the environment in the name of property rights) was, we were assured, real enough and the speech, however bogus, made people more aware of that. Consciousness-raising, in the lingo of the day. If Chief Seattle had actually made that speech it would have been true, so the fact that he hadn’t made it was deemed a mere detail. The speech did not need to be true, because it was Truer than True. So is the Super Bowl Sunday myth, according to the domestic violence advocates. And if the bandits in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” were around today, they’d be saying “Truth? We don’t need no stinking truth!” And then add that they had something truer, God help us.

    • It’s not just Confirmation Bias? When people see the dishonest statistic supporting their world-view, they cleave to it?

      When presented with data refuting the dishonest statistic, often people experience the ‘back-fire’ effect and cling even more strongly to their worldview and dishonest stats.

      • My late father-in-law, an educated man and a pacifist, was convinced that the Defense budget was the single biggest expense for the US. Of course, it’s not–it’s human services and social spending by a goodly margin, and has been since the 70’s. My wife had just been to a speech by the Sec of HHS, and when her Dad began railing about how crazy it was for the US to spend more of its money on weapons and soldiers than anything else, she told him that the Sec. of HHS had specifically said that entitlements and social spending were twice that of defense (now its more than 3X.) He just got angry. He denied it, said it was a lie, that he didn’t believe it, that it couldn’t be true. It was amazing.

        • Stubbornness is neither good nor bad. It’s a quality that can incite us men to heroic deeds as well as deep intransigence. We are all guilty of it, seems like dads are especially wired so.

          I recall seeing on my dad’s face, once there could be no more denying proof–the look of unhappy acquiescence, followed by the futile furrow of the brow as the newly accepted fact was temporarily run through the spinner to see if it could be used for the recently upturned worldview.

          But yes, our brains are amazing fortresses when they want to be to keep from the effort of rewiring a lot of what has been accepted.

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