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In the defense of defensible numbers: "we have six studies that say Romney's tax plan will lead to economic growth...", "Obama is a communist.. just study it out...", "you can make statistics say anything you want..." , “Ryan is the thinker…”, “Ryan the Wunderkind of policy…”

"Intelligence" plays a sometime awkward role in today’s political debate. Many people appeal to it as though they have applied it. And this appeal is frequently ignored by the intelligent. I was discussing ObamaCare recently with an independent.  She had a friend with cancer who had said that under ObamaCare she would have lost her life.  Indeed, this friend pointed out that under any socialized medical delivery system, she would have died and only the great American System saved her life. I pointed out that statistically this should be challenged because there is no correlation between delivery modes of medicine in industrialized countries and middle class survival rates on cancer.  (Now comes the appeal) My independent friend then informs me "well you can make statistics say anything you want..."    

Now my friend is a school teacher and well knows the difference between statistical analysis and anecdotal evidence.  She is also aware of the numerous studies that have shown that people that have gone through such cathartic events as cancer and come out the other side, tend to feel safer with the status quo.  They dont want change because the system dealt adequately with the scare of their lives. These factors have nothing to do with statistics. They are arranged in the scared person's mind only as "if you take this away, I would not have survived." But of course there is no evidence of this.  In fact, it is the very same reaction you get when playing slot machines.  Ever noticed how after you have gone through a dry spell on a given machine you just dont want to move to another machine.  You reason that they hit sometimes and this one is about ready. But the fact is the odds are exactly the same whichever lever you pull. So for many cancer survivors, but not all, the system that just crippled them financially at least gave them life, and this is enough to trust it and none other. While I can understand this from my independent’s friend, it is a little harder to understand from the independent that has been trained to understand the differences. Indeed, the appeal to faux understandings of statistics is very hard to swallow, though she felt perfectly justified.

So here is a shocker, NO YOU CANT make statistics say anything you want.  You can make statistics say only what they say.  Now what you hear may be another story, filled with context and subtitles set forth by you own predilections. But the numbers are just numbers and this is what trips many people up - they are certain this particular slot machine is ready to hit. But statistical correlation is only that, it is not a statement about causality.  You must add that part in. And statements about causality become stronger when multiple studies controlling for multiple variables are tested - as in the case of medical care delivery systems. And from those many controlled and nonbiased studies, the chances of her survival are exactly the same. The illusion is in the control that you feel.

But, it has been the case for some time in the GOP talking points that where the numbers themselves come from make little difference. Statistics are untrustworthy and it is only the interpretation that counts.  Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney are the poster boys for this magical point of view. They know that their followers, and even some undecideds, will hear only the interpretation they are most comfortable with. To them it will become "scientific fact." And in the court of public opinion, President Obama is the poster boy for finding the numbers in the right place. When it comes to debating, Romney-Ryan know which one will win. Debates play on a number of psychological levels, such as the ones outlined above. Convincing people rarely works because they lend such arguments the false sense of equivalency - like the anecdotal evidence vs. the statistical evidence. They will also see themselves as "smart" for doing so.  

This is why when Biden was challenged about the stimulus and he could have fired back with numbers, he didnt.  He could have said the slowing economic recovery is strongly correlated to the lack of continuing the stimulus through the jobs act - that Ryan had voted down.  But then Ryan could have countered with his "facts" of the six studies.  Never mind that these are all suspect and not "studies" in the scientific sense of the term. It wouldnt have mattered.  The point would have been lost.  Instead he was on target ... saying essentially: "Ryan you dont even believe that, you asked for the stimulus money..." It is not a point about hypocrisy, it is a point about the trustworthiness of their "intelligent" positions, and it worked. The pretend science, could not be adequately used because even the citer didnt believe it. Of course, while I enjoyed this, it is still a bit disappointing.  Two hypothesis could be tested and analyzed, but I think Biden knew this wouldnt work since it didnt play to the right psychology.  

Chris Matthews did almost as well with the "Obama is a communist" lady.  She kept insisting that he "study" the situation (appealing to her own intelligence for having done so), but it was equally as clear she had not. Unfortunately, there are many that will not see it this way. And any reference to the many laws and policy positions the Obama administration has taken that are clearly capitalist would be immediately disenfranchised.

I guess in many ways this is a reflection of the U.S. state of trust in facts and numbers. People love to cite times when the “specialists” were wrong.  But they rarely admit to the thousands of times they are right.  Perhaps it is related to the googling-down of Americans where we no longer work for the information we have in our brains and therefore it never truly changes us anymore. We are finding it harder and harder to be swayed by things that should sway us.  Oh it is true that we do trust some numbers, even in the face of our beliefs – Many Christians will decry evolution, but have no doubt that bacteria can evolve to become resistant to antibiotics. It is only when you point out that this is evolution that people get mad.  Or what about this, when we climb on an airplane? We have a great deal of faith in the predictive abilities of Bernoulli models and wind flow, but there are many that still doubt those models in predicting climate. Regardless of how much the GOP tried to add smoke to the screen of understanding these predictive successes, there has been no scientific reason to doubt either of these. And “retail doubt” of all facts is a biased view generally. Consensus studies that are unbiased and controlled in the scientific sense continue to support the hypotheses.  Never the less, large segments of our population continue to believe that they are “smart” and after a google search they know what to trust.  But again, they didn't have to fight to understand this and where it came from, so appeals to the intelligentsia side of their natures are not warranted. “I studied it out…”  Really?  How?  Unfortunately, if you are like Obama, you really want to tell people the “how.”  And this is exactly NOT what we ready for as an audience.  Our (speaking for many of us) psychological makeup has not been changed by the changing of our world through knowledge. And equally unfortunately, it is exactly this kind of president we need in a world dominated by numbers.

Now please don't think I am bashing the great equalizer of intelligence –Google.  It is incredibly useful as a tool, when you know how to use it.  But statements like “you can make statistics say anything” show that you don't know how to use it. Because you have given equal weights to all explanations of statistics, and blamed the statistics for the muddle you have found yourself in.

One of the great things about the Great Orange is that the writers here frequently try to dig a little deeper. Using Google for what it is good at. It leaves me constantly at wonder as to how the Romney’s of the world qualify for a presidential run. It is too bad that its readers are those looking for justifications for their opinions, when what we really want is to get the true undecideds to read the arguments.  But maybe we are just not ready for that as a people yet. I think Bill Clinton said it best about ideology: “It gives you the answers before you look.” Any real swing toward a more just and liberal society will require that we change this.

Just say’n

Originally posted to CitizenKane on Fri Oct 12, 2012 at 05:40 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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