Sunday, May 14, 2006

Innumeracy it's not

No, it's just propaganda

The ivory towers have been increasingly under siege in recent decades. Biologists have to defend the ramparts from the onslaughts of creationists, climatologists pour boiling oil on the heads of the global-warming deniers (all too many of whom, unfortunately, find it cozy in an oil-soaked environment), and astronomers defy the government thought police who insist on appending “only a theory” to every mention of the Big Bang. I sympathize, of course, but perhaps I was too complacent about the ostensible security of my position as a math teacher.

Even arithmetic is now under attack.

I see you're not too surprised. That just goes to show you've been paying attention. The Bush administration has never been fond of arithmetic. That's why its numbers never add up. Whether it's troop levels, deficit estimates, revenue forecasts, military expenditures—anything you like—the numbers that issue from the White House are pure fantasy. It's reminiscent of the glory days of wunderkind David Stockman, the Reagan administration budget director who later confessed to just making up the numbers that went into the budget's economic forecast.

Political appointees can be expected to behave like that, I suppose, although I wish we held them to a higher standard. And I'd like the level of expected probity to be somewhat better than simply “don't do anything you could go to jail for,” a test the Bush league now appears to be in the throes of failing. When politicians and their lackeys behave in these reprehensible ways, we have no choice but to turn to the paladins of the fourth estate for their gimlet-eyed evisceration of governmental deceit. Except— Well, I guess that hasn't been going too well either.

NewsMax is always ready to bend over backward to make excuses for the excesses of Bush and company. As the president sinks ever lower in the polls, even Fox News has been forced to admit that the president's popularity numbers have reached a new personal worst. The people at NewsMax, however, are made of hardier stuff. They will bend the numbers to their will. Witness this May 14 story:
Bush Approval Rating Jumps Six Points

President Bush's job approval rating has jumped six points in the wake of a media barrage of criticism over his administration's telephone records collection program.
Wow! Good news for Bush fans (the few that are left)! His numbers have rebounded! Hurray! Let's read on to savor the delicious reportage:
A Harris Interactive poll published in The Wall Street Journal Online on Friday had Bush’s approval rating at an all time low - with just 29 percent of Americans saying they liked the way he was handling his job....

A Gallup survey released Friday yielded a similar result, with just 31 percent giving Bush a positive job approval rating.
Okay, I guess we haven't reached the good news part yet.
A Newsweek survey released on Sunday, however, found that the president's approval numbers had improved markedly, with 35 percent saying he was doing a good job.
Yes! The president's numbers “improved markedly”! What a brilliant recovery.

Did you do the math? Let's see: 35% – 29% = 6%. There it is! This magnificent surge was derived by the simple expedient of subtracting the earlier Harris poll from the later Newsweek poll. Let's hear it for apples and oranges!

Apples and oranges? Yeah, that's right. NewsMax was serving up a tossed fruit salad. What if we see what Newsweek had to say about its own poll?
There’s more bad news for the White House in the NEWSWEEK poll: President Bush’s approval rating has dropped to the lowest in his presidency. At 35 percent, his rating is one point below the 36 percent he received in NEWSWEEK’s polls in March and November, 2005.
There it is in clear numbers. Newsweek's poll reflected yet another drop in Bush's approval numbers. NewsMax engaged in the most blatant cherry-picking of the data when they wrote a story comparing the highest recent number they could find to the lowest previous number. They had to compare numbers from organizations with different samples and methodologies to make the mythical claim that Bush is on the way back up.

Even arithmetic isn't safe from these scoundrels.


Anonymous said...

I talked to two people at church this morning. One liked Bush, one didn't. Notify NewsMax that W is up 21 points since last night!

Nick Barrowman said...

Perhaps they should change their name to NewsMin.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting "How to Lie with Statistics" up for all to see. That book was required reading in my basic research class in grad school, and it amazes me how its teachings still come in handy every time I read a story about politics, especially those that concern polls.

That book ought to be required reading for anyone who walks into a newsroom. Innumeracy may be a grievous issue for the general public, but it's a particularly pernicious problem for journalists.