Lies and Statistics Meet Gun Control

There is a quote, commonly attributed to Mark Twain, which says “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” After four research methods and statistics classes for my undergrad and grad degrees I think I understand the feeling behind this phrase. I’ve given my commentary on the topic of statistics before. I think Homer Simpson summed it up best when, on Nightline with Kent Brockman, he was asked how he would explain how crime in the city was  up a certain percentage since Simpson’s anti-crime task force (vigilante group) had taken to the streets. Simpson replied that statistics could be used to prove anything, and suggested that 42% of all people knew that.

statsWhen we have statistics reported to us the numbers given may be legitimate. It may be the case that 80% of people prefer one brand of laundry detergent to another, or whatever it is, but the number only means something if the method used to obtain it is honest. The problem with statistics is that it is easy to manipulate a study or a survey to obtain the results you want. When a lot of the general population don’t understand or care about survey methods this becomes a real problem. We have “experts” giving us contradictory statistics on an issue and people are left unsure which study to believe. I think this confusion leads to the mindless embracing of already established personal bias; in the case of politics this manifests as association with a political party.

I don’t mean to say it is mindless to have an affiliation with any ideology or political perspective, but once we have that affiliation we need to be careful to avoid mindlessness. Just because I affiliate with a group doesn’t mean I have to like all the same things they like and hate all the same things they hate. We, being human, tend to do that though. We just need to be more careful when drawing conclusions, taking time to consider the facts (all of them), and not just siding with your established bias, before making a final decision. In the game of life we aren’t limited to only one of the help aids from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? We can phone a friend, poll the audience, do some research and eliminate the obvious falsities, and we can do all of this as much as is necessary to find out all of the information available. So why don’t we?

It’s easier to stick with what seems to immediately fit our personal perspective and frame of reference. Easier isn’t always better. More efficient is better, but quick bad decisions aren’t more efficient than slow good decisions.

In the gun control debate there are a lot of statistics flying around. I did a post on this a few months ago. Each side of this discussion, okay, fight, have statistics to try to prove their agenda. Can either argument be fully trusted? Are both sides presenting manipulated survey data just to prove their point? This is the question we each need to answer. Or not. I guess it doesn’t really matter, we can all just follow our own personal agendas and take the easier way out.

The point of this post was simply to share this report by PoliceOne.com. A news article I read claims the results of this survey fly in the face of President Obama’s claims that the police in America support his side’s efforts for gun control. The PoliceOne survey does indicate that the police are not in favor of gun control. As time passes the two sides of this battle over guns ramp up their rhetoric. Maybe we can’t know when we are being told honest statistics and when we are lying.

The question I am now asking myself is this: if I can’t trust the people reporting the “facts” then how am I supposed to make an informed decision? I have my own answer to this question, but I’m curious about how you answer the question. How would you respond if asked “experts on both sides of the argument offer proven facts that contradict, how do you know who to believe?”

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About paulbrodie

I am a writer and a musician. My education is in psychology with emphasis in industrial/organizational psychology. My work experience has been primarily with electronic document management. Academically and intellectually I am interested in criminology and sociology. I am married to my favorite person in the world and we have one daughter.
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