2008 09 04
Lies and Damn Lies
(Note: I apologize for breaking Explananda with this post last night — I let my enthusiasm override my remembering-how-to-post.)
I suppose it’s fitting since my last post was right before the 2004 election, but I never thought my return would be about politics. Well, kind of.
For various reasons, including the interesting Obama/Clinton delegate math, I’ve been following this year’s election in greater detail than any in the past. Which, unfortunately, means I’ve been reading a lot of political articles. In the course of my travails I came across a particularly egregious example of the mis-use of statistics that got me worked up enough that I had to write about it somewhere. So here you go.
I found this in a post yesterday by Peggy Noonan at WSJ.com:
I’m bumping into a lot of critics who do not buy the legitimacy of small town mayorship (Palin had two terms in Wasilla, Alaska, population 9,000 or so) and executive as opposed to legislative experience. But executives, even of small towns, run something. There are 262 cities in this country with a population of 100,000 or more. But there are close to a hundred thousand small towns with ten thousand people or less. “You do the math,” the conservative pollster Kellyanne Conway told me. “We are a nation of Wasillas, not Chicagos.”
The worst thing is that this even passes the sniff test; 262 times 100,000 is way, way less than 100,000 times 10,000, so it does seem like there are more people living in small cities than big cities.
Except: the first alarm should go off when you look at the numbers for small cities. 100,000 times 10,000 is 1 billion, and the population of the US is just over 0.3 billion. And of course, when you actually get to the facts, you find that over 58% of the US lives in cities with over 200,000 people.
The trick is using a floor for the number you want to minimize, and a ceiling for the number you want to maximize. The counting in the quote above counts New York City as a city of 100,000, and counts Eastport, Maine (my ancestral home, population 1640) and many other towns with population under 1000 as cities of 10,000.
Another example of this fun statistical manipulation: only 1% of the US population has a household income of over $400,000, but over 50% of the population has a household income of under $50,000. Clearly, the evidence show that most of the wealth in the US lies in the hands of working families.
Howls of outrage (5)