Readings for Analysis
Usually, I bring up the following reading around Halloween, but it’s interesting to consider in terms of statistics:
The above article uses statistics to debunk vampires and zombies. Although zombies exist metaphorically (see Black Friday shoppers), they’re fictional representations making social commentary, so we can critique those narratives based on artistic as opposed to scientific merits. The same is true about vampires; however, I think the above article misses an important factor about vampires when stating, “if a vampire sucked one person’s blood each month–turning each victim into an equally hungry vampire–after a couple of years there would be no people left, just vampires” (“Vampires and Zombie,” 31 Oct. 2006). That leads me to these questions:
- What if the vampire bite didn’t always turn a victim into a vampire but killed them?
- What if vampires could live off animals?
- What about feeding off of already dead people?
- How about if they robbed blood banks, so they drank blood but never bit a human?
Sometimes even science can’t answer the most important questions in life…
“How to Lie With Statistics”
Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics” is on Canvas, so I expect that you read it already. Below are some old images that might still be useful for this discussion on distortion. When do visuals lie? What should you do to make sure you’re accurately representing the facts in a visual?
- Averages: mean, median, mode
- Pictorial representations
What’s going on in the chart below? Does it represent twice as much?
Review this old PowerPoint and pay close attention to the Enrollment graphs.
One More Visual
Although we would all agree that purposely manipulating data and visuals would be unethical, we might not readily recognize that even inadvertent manipulating data or presenting unclear information is unethical. A technical communicator–and this goes for anyone communicating technical information regardless of title–must convey information accurately and in a way the audience will understand.
On March 15th’s page, I have a discussion of using images in technical communication. If you scroll to the bottom of that page, you’ll come across the following discussion and image:
Take a look at the visual below. It’s a graph that was included in an old business writing textbook as a good example of an area graph. What do you think? What does the graph represent?
I’m not 100% sure, but my assumption is that this is supposed to represent income distribution equity based on population…but I’m not betting the ranch on that assumption. Although there are other problems, below are four major ones:
- There is no key or details on what those numbers represent. Are they actual figures? Are they out of 1,000? 10,000? 100,000?
- The gray population values have six numbers, but the X-axis only has five areas: Africa, S.E. Asia, Middle East, Far East, South America.
- The blue ‘GNP Distribution’ has five values marked.
- There are hash marks on the x-axis that don’t correspond to any discernible region, making the reader ask, “are they missing geographic areas, or am I supposed to know what ‘Africa and a half’ is”?
- The order of geographic regions follows no discernible order. The order isn’t alphabetical or based on an east-to-west or west-to-east orientation.
Most bizarre, huh? This “image” comes from the following Business Writing Textbook:
Murphy, Herta A., Herbert W. Hildebrant, and Jane P. Thomas. Effective Business Communication. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1997: 575.
Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance Selection
Below I have a discussion about a statistic from Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance (1992)–on Canvas. The overall point isn’t to debunk evidence of the Earth warming; instead, it is about our (social, perhaps) commitment to facts, figures, and statistics.
The Al Gore excerpt is relevant for our next discussion on statistics, but I wanted to use it as an introduction for critically thinking about statistics and the false equivalence fallacy.
- Gore explains that the scientific community is overwhelmingly in agreement that Global Warming (he wrote this in 1992) is happening, yet some people want “equal time” devoted to the other side, the group that rejects the Earth is warming because of human activity. Gore’s point is that it’s misleading to give the opposition “equal time” because doing so implies there’s more doubt than there is or that both perspectives have the same amount of support. Again, overwhelming evidence, supported by the scientific community, demonstrates the Earth is warming. The small fringe group of scientists shouldn’t get “equal time” because that actually distorts the scientific view.
- Gore also does something that’s misleading, but it doesn’t really take away from the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming. He states “when 98 percent of the scientists in a given field share one view and 2 percent disagree, both viewpoints are sometimes presented in a format in which each appears equally credible” (pp. 38-39; emphasis added).
- I’m not trying to debunk global warming or claim Gore is way off base with his claims. If anything, the fact that his source is nearly 30 years old, and we’re feeling the effects of global warming (now called “climate change”) proves his reporting was correct.
- However, Gore uses percentages to describe a scientific field’s agreement and disagreement regarding global warming. His percentages aren’t real. By “real” I mean they aren’t a survey of all scientists or a representative sample of scientists in climate science. If they do represent a survey or other enumeration, he doesn’t provide evidence.
- Again, I’m not refuting the idea that humans are causing the Earth to warm. I only want to point out that Gore is using 98 percent in ways that we might in everyday conversation, which doesn’t follow strict scientific verification.
- How often have you claimed, “99% of the time, I take an Uber if I go out drinking”; or “90% of the time, I’m happy with my spouse/partner/significant other”?
- We say “99% of the time…” quite often when we really mean the following: “My perception is that I overwhelmingly do something very often.” We can’t possibly quantify all our habits in such precise percentages, so our claims or “99%” can’t be taken literally.
The takeaway here is to be careful when presenting statistics or what you hope to pass off as “overwhelming evidence” by grabbing a random “98%, 99%, 99.9%, etc.” out of thin air when your audience expects quantifiable evidence gathered appropriately according to the field’s adherence to the scientific method.
Keep Up with the Syllabus
We’ll continue our discussion on ethics Wednesday (4/19). If you haven’t read Darrel Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics,” do so before the Final Exam–the reading is on Canvas.