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
Graphic: Daily News