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Statistics
How to lie convincingly
12/15/16

Colorado has plain-speaking mountain people, honest folk who believe in facts and common sense, which makes it possible to lie to them with statistics. Keep in mind that statistics is the science of lying with the truth.

Police violence against blacks is an example, as shown by the racial injustice that whereas 12.5% of the American population is African-American, they make up 37% of the 2.2 million male prison inmates as of 2014. Am I the only guy old enough to remember when those same kinds of statistics were used to prove that blacks were more prone to be criminals, along with other statistics to show how uneducated, dirty, and inferior they were.

As we became enlightened, we railed against the numbers, inventing mitigations of all kinds. But the problems were not the numbers, for they were facts, but rather a violation of a statistical mantra, "Correlation doesn't prove causality." Let me explain how violating this high-sounding rule is one of the most effective ways to lie to you.

A statistician looking for enlightenment, as opposed to the more common need to support an opinion, would look for all the other correlations of prison inmates. He might notice a correlation showing a high percentage of folks with kinky hair in prison, which of course the hair straightener vendors could use to pitch how their products would keep you out of prison. Another statistic would show that poor people are more likely to be in prison.

If the statistician continues to crunch the numbers, and to apply a pinch of common sense, the kinky hair statistic emerges as just another way of counting black people. More importantly, the African-American statistic emerges as just another way to count poor people. Further analysis shows that this correlation is fundamental enough to prove causality.

Whereas we can froth about whether black people are more prone to be criminals, uneducated, or dirty, we don't get steamed with such statistics about poor people. Their poverty encourages law breaking to make ends meet, and they can't afford education or bubble baths.

Whereas the KKK uses the black people statistic to militate for fewer black people, the ones recognizing the true link between correlation and causality work for fewer poor people, that is, to enrich their lives or at least to give them opportunities to stop being poor people.

We can lobby for college admissions criteria favorable to poor people without compunction, for example, while we get our panties in a bunch over such criteria being favorable to blacks. The fact is that a historically quick way to recognize poor people has been by the color of their skin, thus forming a useful correlation. We deflect the racially charged discussion to one of substance, one where we can all agree.

The internet bombards us with more facts than humans have ever had to endure, and the majority of those come correlated to bogus causality to support unfounded opinions. As Vin Scully once said, "Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination."

If you like to engage in discussions with artillery duels of statistics, keep in mind that both of you may be firing blanks. Better is to peek out of your foxholes, and think your way to what is really behind the chaff.

Correlation doesn't prove causality, but it presents the possibility so you can use your smarts to look into it. Or you can use the correlation without that to lie well. Your choice.

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Windy day at Great Sand Dunes National Park

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OK, I'm all ears

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Garden of the Gods

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Yes, I slept well there

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