Polls, Damned Polls, and Statistics

Statistics have always been used to obscure the truth. There’s the famous quote by British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, and popularized by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Sadly, nothing has changed. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

The problem is that statistics isn’t a popular subject, and many people happily avoid taking any classes that cover the topic. (It was affectionately known as “Sadistics” when I was in college.) We’re easily led astray by official-sounding numbers, especially if the conclusion is one we already agree with. While we (thankfully) don’t need to worry about Chebychev’s Rules, Probability Distribution Functions, or Stem and Leaf Diagrams, we should know how statistics work, and how they can be used to fool us. There are numerous ways in which statistics can be misleading. I ran into one of them while reading the news this week.

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