Lies and Statistics

Sir Charles Dilke [1843-1911] commented once that false statements can be arranged according to their degree under three heads, fibs, lies, and statistics. Mark Twain used a stronger word, when he wrote his now famous quote, which I will not repeat here.

What is clear in these statements is, that people can lie out of convenience, people can lie out of a strong desire to deceive, or people can lie and try to give their lie the appearance of truth by using statistics to support it. In the latter case, statistics are being mentioned but interpreted in such a way that it fits the lie someone wants to promote.

Not always people are knowingly promoting a lie with the use of statistics. Often people are convinced that their own opinion is the truth and they are already biased when they look at statistics. I believe I don’t exaggerate if I say that we are all guilty of this use of statistics. We don’t have the intention to deceive, but still we are not careful with the truth. Even a sin committed unintentionally still remains a sin (see Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27).

It is important that we are aware of common fallacies if it comes to using statistics.

  • In the first place so that we will not make those mistakes and by doing so unintentionally sin against God’s commandments.
  • In the second place, so that we will recognize it when others commit this sin to try to win others for their opinion.
  • In the third place, so that we can expose these fallacies when they are being used against us in discussions, often about moral/ethical issues.

Often, these fallacies are being committed in discussions about moral/ethical issues. If we look at the issue of gun control in the USA, in connection with the many mass shootings which have happened there and are happening regularly, all sides have been able to come up with statistics that prove their point, they believe. Statistics have  been used in many other situations as well, often for the purpose of pushing for change in the laws either to allow or prohibit certain behaviours. Often, statistics play an important role in political decisions.

Christians must be known as people who love, speak and defend the truth. Christians, therefore, should be careful in interpreting statistics (‘love the truth’), and in using statistics (‘speak the truth’), but should also be bold in exposing the wrong use of statistics (‘defend the truth’).

Some of the most common ‘mistakes’ in using statistics are:

  • Cherry picking: only using those results that fit your claim and exclude others
  • false causality: falsely assuming when two events seem related that the one causes the other
  • Sampling bias: using a set of data that isn’t representative
  • Push polling, or the Hawthorne effect: asking questions in such a way that it influences the behaviour of those asked.

And there are more common fallacies. A list of 15 of these common fallacies can be found at the website Visual Capitalist.

 

Correlation and Causality

A list of interesting ‘correlations’ can be found here.

This shows that often, two developments may seem to be connected, but that doesn’t mean that they are connected. If one study shows that the rate of two developments goes up over time, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are connected. More study needs to be done and more detailed questions need to be asked to prove this. And even if it is proven to be connected, then still the question is: is the one the cause of the other, or is the latter the cause of the first? Or maybe there is a totally different cause for both developments.

Statistics and Truth

Statistics don’t prove anything. Statistics must be interpreted. Those who base their opinions on statistics or opinion polls, want to be deceived. The only way to discover the truth, is by depending on the Origin of the Truth, that is on Him Who is Truth. We believe that God’s Word is truth. Jesus Christ is the Word of God in the flesh. He is the Truth. In Him there is no lie.  If we depend on Him and let His Spirit govern us, then we will be able to discern the truth and expose the lie.

We should therefore not base our opinions on statistics, but only on the Word of God. We should be very careful to use statistics in our discussions and not let statistics form the foundation of our arguments.

Yes, we believe that God’s commandments are good for all human beings, and that will become clear in a society which abides by God’s commandments, compared to a society that chooses to throw away God’s commandments. To a certain extent we can use that as secondary arguments. But we shall not base our main argument on it. The most important reason why we believe God’s commandments are good, is because God says so.