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Scott Patrick

Professor Abbey

GOVT 610

21 April 2011

Book Review: Best's Damned Lies and Statistics

People like facts. Facts, as the saying goes, do not lie; they are proven reflections of reality,

separate from all prejudice and normative judgment. In an uncertain world, they are the anchors we can

hold on to, trust in and rely upon. Yet what we often consider "factual" is sometimes anything but. In his

2001 book, Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers From the Media, Politicians, and Activists,

sociologist Joel Best expounds on how, despite the importance popularly accredited to them, facts – in

the form of statistics about the social sciences – fall victim to a litany of blunders, deviations and

exploitation. As they travel from the methodology blueprint to our eyes and ears, statistics are poorly

formed, garbled in their relay to consumers or used as weapons in ideological battles in which truth is

among the casualties. Best's book contains valuable lessons for students, scholars and those seeking to

apply their knowledge to the real world, and aids in making his readers more astute when dealing with

statistics and their perversion – including the statistical follies we see in the media today.

Best devotes his book toward examining the use of social statistics in an age when most people

accept such statistics as facts, even when they are wrong. This is due to a propensity in the modern

period requiring facts to be empirical and definitive; they should not be open to interpretation, if

possible. Using statistics in sociology therefore reflected the desire "to bring the authority of science to

debates about social policy" (Best, 2001, p. 13). Yet statistics do not simply emerge immaculate from the

ether. People create them, and people have agendas. Activists generally wish to create awareness about

a problem, and as such, may be inclined to distort statistics to make a social problem seem larger than it

is. In response, those with interests opposed to an activist's agenda may manipulate statistics to
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minimize the issue (pp. 15-17). In the meanwhile, the public often does not know how to interpret the

numbers thrown around in these conflicting campaigns. Many people are innumerate, meaning that

certain numerical concepts bewilder them, prompting them to accept massaged statistics rather than

scrutinize them closely (pp. 19-20). Best encourages people to think critically about who creates or cites

a statistic and what hidden motives they may possess, if any. Once we identify the source of a statistic,

we can then make reasonable assumptions about what response they are trying to provoke from us (pp.

27-28).

Having stimulated us to inquire about the who and why behind statistics, Best analyzes how

people generate faulty statistics, including how estimates become facts. Studying society is not as

straightforward as counting a readily observable phenomenon; it may take some time before some

social problems attract notice, and even established ones like illegal drug use and rape depend on

people accurately reporting when and how they happen. The uncertainty surrounding these cases

create a "dark figure" of unknown instances, leading activists to guess what the "dark figure" is – and,

because they are usually predisposed to exaggerate the problem, they tend to guess higher than the

reality (pp. 33-34). The "dark figure" necessitates guessing, but such guessing becomes troublesome

when advocates treat the guess as a truth, investing significant passion in defending it as such (p. 36).

Another issue with statistic production is defining the problem. If a researcher assumes a very

broad definition of what constitutes an instance of a phenomenon, he or she will find many more cases

than if he or she narrowed his or her definition to very specific instances. Activists, who as noted above

prefer large numbers, may adopt broad definitions and end up including false positives, instances of a

phenomenon that should not be included in the research but are. Opponents of the activists will use a

narrow definition with false negatives, instances of a phenomenon that are included in a study but

should not be (p. 40). It is essential that we examine the exact wording of a definition and wonder

whether it is a logical description of the phenomenon (p. 44). It is understandably impossible to form an
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unwavering consensus about what researchers should include in a definition, but it is still important that

we understand how selective definitions can obfuscate or embellish a problem.

Measuring a phenomenon also proves difficult. Best uses survey research as an example, noting

how questions, when phrased in a particular way, may ignore the nuances behind an opinion (under

what conditions a person might approve of abortion, for instance) or influence respondents to prefer

one response due to the language of a question (pp. 45-48). Furthermore, researchers may decide to

translate what they uncover in a particular way without disclosing their reasoning for that interpretation

(pp. 48-51). This relates to the definition problem and the biases activists and their opponents may bring

to their research, and requires consumers of statistics to return to the who and why questions

mentioned previously.

As researchers usually cannot study every instance of a problem as closely as they would like,

they must draw samples from the overall population and then generalize about the population based on

the sample. If the sample studied does not reflect the characteristics that define a population, however,

it does not matter how large the sample is; the sample simply does not reflect the population and will

produce an erroneous result (pp. 53-54). Activists particularly may latch on to a sensational but atypical

instance of a phenomenon to draw attention to the problem (p. 56). Random sampling helps to ensure

representative samples, but reducing melodrama in statistics requires honesty on promoters' parts.

Once research produces statistics, there remains potential for their misuse. Best discusses how

statistics mutate, drastically changing their message. The reasons for this may be innocent enough, as

innumerate individuals often misunderstand simple statistics (p. 76) as well as complex ones (p. 82),

jumbling data when they repeat it, with the jumbled data being repeated by others. Others, however,

deliberately choose to report certain data in certain ways, making it more likely that the person

presenting the data will be able to persuade the recipient of a particular point of view (p. 94). Regardless

of the precise cause, statistics tend to change because people prefer dramatic figures to moderate ones.
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Statistics can be useful in making comparisons, yet we must employ care to guarantee that a fair

comparison is being made. When researchers compare instances of a phenomenon over time, it is

possible that methods of measurement for that phenomenon have changed (p. 99) or are no longer

accurate, as when inflation modifies monetary value (p. 103). At other times, it is vital to keep context in

mind, such as in comparisons between geographic locales (p. 109) or different social groups (p. 113), as

intervening factors may make a unmodified comparison inappropriate. The circumstances surrounding a

comparison should be judged prior to the comparison being made.

Finally, Best builds upon his point earlier in the book about people with different interests

utilizing statistics. When these individuals or groups compete against one another, a "stat war" takes

place (p. 129). It behooves observers of these contending causes to question the definitions, numbers

and interpretations adopted by each side and to understand them in an informed perspective (pp. 151-

152). While competing interests in these wars need not be deceptive in the statistics they use, they are

certainly not neutral messengers. They have motivations that color their research and how they present

it.

Best's book is valuable from several different perspectives. As a student, his enticement to look

critically at statistics fits with a more general imperative to not just memorize and regurgitate

information one is taught. While he spends a large amount of time discussing how activists, government

officials, the media and others frame data in order to sponsor certain points of view, something similar

occurs in academia. There are different schools of thought within the academic fields, with some being

presently fashionable while others are long-standing orthodoxies. Many social science instructors will

indoctrinate their pupils into a particular school of thought, subtly guiding them into repeating

conventional wisdom. They assign certain classic tomes to the syllabi, and in the pages of these tomes,

the student will find studies (including statistics) that defend the deeply ingrained theories within the

field. While this practice eases newcomers into territory they would not be familiar with, it also
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reinforces rather than challenges the facts upon which the field rests. Edward Said (1978), by contrast,

attacked traditional Western studies of the Middle East for adopting false Eurocentric assumptions that

had long served as the baseline for that field. Similarly, Samuel P. Huntington (1968) questioned

modernization theory in comparative politics and proposed that crafting strong, autonomous

institutions were more crucial in developing countries than their economic expansion or their form of

government. As students of their respective avocations, they dared to reject viewpoints founded on

false foundations, and did so by being critical of what they instructors were teaching them rather than

blindly accepting it.

Perhaps the most useful element of Best's book for the student, however, is the chapter

warning about comparing "apples and oranges". When learning from case studies especially, there is

predilection on the part of the student to assume that what holds true in one instance will repeat itself

in others. As Best points out, this is not always the case. Usually, instructors warn students of practicing

universalism, in which researchers impose values, ideas, policies and other concepts upon other cases

without pause for how the setting may be different and therefore produce different results. Context

matters, and Best strengthens this basic truth by imploring consumers of statistics to weigh all the facts

before they accept a statistic at face value.

For the political scientist or public administrator, Best's book serves as a blueprint for using

statistics more honestly – or dishonestly. Although Best intends the book to pass lessons on to the

average individual so they can be more cautious when encountering statistics, someone working in a

political profession could resolve to avoid the sort of errors Best claims activists, researchers and

officials fall prey to as well as the tricks they may consciously use to further their objectives. Contrarily, a

less scrupulous person in the same vocation could take note of the bad practices Best describes and use

them to his or her advantage. A political scientist conducting a survey may note Best's mention of how

some researchers word survey questions in such a way as to get a particular response and strive to
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phrase questions so they are as neutral as possible. Another political scientist doing the same research,

working for a think tank with an ideological bent and hoping to please his employers, may heed the

same passage, realize that this is practice within the field (even if it is a ethically questionable one) and

phrase the questions to get responses in accordance with the think tank's ideas. Despite his designs to

tell a cautionary tale, Best's book could act as a handbook for manipulating data. After all, as he states

many times, the problems surrounding the misuse of statistics have abounded due to the innumeracy of

the masses and the general tendency among the media to grab on to big numbers. Until it becomes as

aware about the abuse of statistics as Best hopes, the public remains vulnerable to manipulation.

As an audience for statistics, however, managers and public administrators could use Best's

book as a warning to be more discerning when interest groups influence them to set policy. Activists will

target them in order to get them to enact one scheme over another and, unless they are discriminating,

managers or administrators may become dupes of misleading statistics that serve narrow interests

rather than the general welfare. They might recognize that research conducted in their municipality or

within their organization derives from a sample that is unrepresentative of the citizens in the area or the

organization's members. Alternatively, they might gleam that researchers have predicated projections

for crime rates or fiscal performance on questionable estimates or incorrect reports. At participatory

events like a town hall meeting or an employer-employee interview, they might hear again and again a

false statistic that has made its way into the common knowledge and be able to correct it (even if those

repeating it are hesitant to be corrected).

A scholar may decide to use Best's book when designing his or her research, again for good or

for ill. If, as a student, he or she became aware of the false facts troubling his or her field, he or she may

use Best's book as a guideline to do new, original research devoid of the problems presently plaguing

established studies. Unfortunately, the scholar may choose to adopt underhanded ploys to "tweak" his

or her research in order to turn heads once his or her work is published. (Of course, scholars who are
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published tend to be peer-reviewed, which means there is a greater chance their methodology will be

questioned than if the research was presented for mass consumption, as is usually the case with think

tanks' reports.) Ideally, however, the scholar will avoid the pitfalls outlined by Best. The scholar will

define concepts clearly, consistently articulate estimates as estimates and measurement methodologies

will not incorporate the fallacies of unrepresentative sampling. The scholar should also stay away from

interpreting data in such a way as to arrive at conclusions the data does not overtly support; and if

interpretation does take place, it must have a rational and overtly stated basis.

The scholar may also see Best's book as an indication that some of the authority attributed to

quantitative data in the social sciences has been overblown. Numbers and formulas appear like hard and

untainted objects, but when a scholar applies them to the social sciences, rife with abstractions that are

difficult to pin down and study, it may be more appropriate to use qualitative research. Qualitative

research, though less precise, does have the benefit of getting a researcher to the thick of the

phenomenon under analysis. Rather than surveying a sample with the same questions to achieve limited

responses that can then be measured, a scholar might attain more enlightenment about an issue by

going among a group, experiencing what they experience and building up trust and eventually access to

previously unknown data. Despite being more time-consuming and convoluted than quantitative

research, qualitative research can provide different facets to social problems that, as Best states, are

more complicated than quantitative research sometimes makes them out to be.

While now a decade old, the statistical errors and manipulations Best's book depicts are just as

topical today as they were then. An exploration of recent new articles supplies a few examples. In a

recent online Computer World article, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a higher

unemployment rate for computer support specialists (7.7%) in 2010 relative to other white-collar

professions, such as lawyers (1.5%) and pharmacists (1.2%) (Machlis, 2011). In a subsequent interview

with Computer World, David Foote, CEO of IT workforce analyst firm Foote Partners, claimed that the
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statistic was misleading because the Labor Department's Standard Occupational Classification classifies

computer support specialists in too narrow "old pure-technology" terms (limited to network engineers

and administrators), failing to include workers who oversee online security or social media development

(Eckle, 2011). This complaint would fall in the category of bad definitions, as it argues that the Labor

Department excludes jobs that should be considered information technology jobs but are not – an

example of false negatives (Best, 2001, p. 40). Foote does not counter with his own statistics in his

interview with Computer World, but it is worth noting that he does have an interest in questioning the

Bureau of Labor Statistics data. As the head of an IT workforce analyst firm, it is to his advantage for the

IT industry to appear less vulnerable to high unemployment rates. If it was particularly vulnerable, the

industry may restrict or disappear altogether, leaving his firm with less work to do. His complaint is not

coming from a neutral position and it is right to recognize this, although whether his point is valid or not

depends on a subjective judgment about whether the Labor Department's definition of what constitutes

an IT job is too broad or too narrow. Best encourages us to make our own decision based on sensible

deliberation, and considering that many workers have had to adopt skills associated with information

technology to adjust to new technological innovations like social media, Foote's argument has merit,

despite his possible bias.

"Dark figures" also continue to cast a long shadow in the media, as do the guesses that

accompany them. On March 29, 2011 potential U.S. presidential candidate and former Republican U.S.

Senator Rick Santorum said that the "reason Social Security is in big trouble is we don't have enough

workers to support the retirees" because "a third of all the young people in America are not in America

today because of abortion." The Web site PolitiFact.com, which is operated by the St. Petersburg Times

and investigates claims made by political figures, looked into the statement to see if abortions were

really having such a significant effect on the U.S. population. In addition to disproving the contention

that a third of pregnancies end in abortion (it is less than a quarter, according to 2003 statistics from the
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U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Louis Jacobson, one of

PolitiFact.com's researchers, also took issue with Santorum's assumption that every abortion lowers the

U.S. population by one person. Jacobson consulted with the non-profit Guttmacher Institute, whose

spokesperson pointed to a 2005 survey of 1,200 women who reported having had abortions. A

"substantial minority" said they "expected to have children after the abortion" (Jacobson, 2011).

Abortion carries a number of "dark figures", the most obvious of which is that women who have them

performed may not report them, perhaps because of some sense of shame or privacy. In this case,

however, the "dark figure" was the degree to which aborted pregnancies reduced the overall U.S.

population, something that would be extremely difficult to measure without following the lives of

women who have had abortions for an extended period (and, once again, that would be limited to the

women willing to acknowledge that they had abortions). Santorum made an assumption (based on a

statistic not borne out by the data) without phrasing it as such; to the haphazard listener, it sounded

more like a sheer statement of fact.

Misrepresenting statistics is by no means exclusive to Republican presidential hopefuls for 2012.

According to a recent blog post by David Kreutzer (2011) with The Heritage Foundation, incumbent

President Barack Obama engaged in what Best refers to as an "apples and oranges" comparison – that

is, using statistics to compare data that do not make for a fair comparison. President Obama has stated

that, because the United States only has about 2% of the world's oil reserves, drilling those reserves

would fail to meet the United States' consumption of 25% of the world's oil (actually 22%, according to

Kreutzer). Kreutzer argues that President Obama is comparing oil reserves to oil production, which are

different things. As Kreutzer puts it:

Imagine that we cut our use of petroleum to one barrel per year, and the rest of the world

eliminated its consumption entirely. We would still only have 2 percent of the world’s reserves,
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but we would consume 100 percent of the world's production. You can see how these statistics

sound alarming but are misleading.

The Heritage Foundation is a well known, widely cited conservative think tank, so it is not surprising that

they would criticize a statistic used by a Democratic president, but again we should judge Kreutzer's

criticism on whether it is reasonable or not. Regardless of where one's politics fall on the left-to-right

spectrum, oil reserves and oil production are indeed two very distinct things and should not be conflated

with one another. Kreutzer's criticism is valid and it would seem as though President Obama did in fact

make a flawed comparison.

While the title of his book comes from a cynical quote about statistics (that they are a type of

lie), Best does not desire us to be cynics but rather critics. Just as our automatic reaction when

presented with data should not be to ingest it without looking at it sideways first, we should not dismiss

the data out of hand because it must be inherently corrupt. There are many stages at which data may be

corrupted, from the production stage to the point where it becomes repeatedly circulated among

elements of the population or even the population at large. People are flawed creatures, and as much as

we may love facts for their positive assurance, the human imprint upon them means "facts" can be

flawed as well. Examples proliferate of this, up to and including the present day. The solution lies in

taking personal responsibility and treating statistics with healthy skepticism as well as a good dose of

fairness. Only through rigorous examination will we be able to separate the true, factual statistics from

the "damned lies."


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Works Cited

Best, Joel (2001). Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers From the Media, Politicians, and

Activists. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Eckle, Jamie (2011, April 18). Career Watch: Misleading government stats on IT employment. Computer

World. Retrieved from

http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/355798/Career_Watch_Misleading_government_sta

ts_on_IT_employment

Huntington, Samuel (1968). Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jacobson, Louis (2011, March 31). Rick Santorum says one of every three pregnancies ends in an

abortion. PolitiFact.com. Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-

meter/statements/2011/mar/31/rick-santorum/rick-santorum-says-one-every-three-

pregnancies-end/

Kreutzer, David (2011, March 31). Quit Repeating Nonsensical Oil Statistics! The Heritage Foundation:

The Foundry. Retrieved from http://blog.heritage.org/?p=56057

Machlis, Sharon (2011, February 18). Tech unemployment higher than white-collar average. Computer

World. Retrieved from

http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9210078/Tech_unemployment_higher_than_white_

collar_average

Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.