On Fooling People With Numbers

One thing I have learned from more than a decade of teaching mathematics is that it is very easy to bamboozle people with numbers and equations. I do it all the time in my calculus classes, and that is when I am bending over backward to be as clear as I possibly can.

Creationists are especially unscrupulous about exploiting this fact about mathematics. At one creationist conference I attended, the speaker went on for close to an hour spouting the sheerest nonsense about information theory and probability. He received a standing ovation for his troubles. Another time, in a small, classroom setting, the creationist speaker tossed off some very small numbers said to represent the probability of this or that complex structure evolving. During the subsequent Q and A, one very serious fellow in the audience asked, “When scientists are confronted with numbers so small, what else can they do but just stare helplessly?” Later I suggested to the questioner that perhaps the scientists might question the ridiculous assumptions underlying the calculations, but he was not amused.

You would think, though, that better educated, more savvy people would not be so easily impressed. Surely our top political pundits, perfectly familiar with the sort of rank dishonesty and cynicism that emanates from politicians, would not accept at face value so much phony number crunching.

Alas, that’s too optimistic. Here’s William Saletan, proving once more that the online magazine Slate is seldom worth reading any more, swooning over Paul Ryan (Mitt Romney’s new running mate, for those who have been out of touch for several days).

A wonderful thing has happened for this country. Paul Ryan will be the Republican nominee for vice president.

Ryan is a real fiscal conservative. He isn’t just another Tea-Party ideologue spouting dogma about less government and the magic of free enterprise. He has actually crunched the numbers and laid out long-term budget proposals. My liberal friends point out that Ryan’s plan leaves many details unclear. That’s true. But show me another Republican who has addressed the nation’s fiscal problems as candidly and precisely as Ryan has. He’s got the least detailed budget proposal out there, except for all the others.

Ryan refutes the Democratic Party’s bogus arguments. He knows that our domestic spending trajectory is unsustainable and that liberals who fail to get it under control are leading their constituents over a cliff, just like in Europe. Eventually, you can’t borrow enough money to make good on your promises, and everyone’s screwed. Ryan understands that the longer we ignore the debt crisis and postpone serious budget cuts—the liberal equivalent of denying global warming—the more painful the reckoning will be. There’s nothing compassionate about that kind of irresponsibility.

That’s pretty dumb. Ryan is just a standard-issue right-winger. His only contribution to the discussion is the sort of faux-intellectual, super-serious demeanor so useful for making nonsense seem reasonable. Happily, we have Paul Krugman to explain what is really going on.

Look, Ryan hasn’t “crunched the numbers”; he has just scribbled some stuff down, without checking at all to see if it makes sense. He asserts that he can cut taxes without net loss of revenue by closing unspecified loopholes; he asserts that he can cut discretionary spending to levels not seen since Calvin Coolidge, without saying how; he asserts that he can convert Medicare to a voucher system, with much lower spending than now projected, without even a hint of how this is supposed to work. This is just a fantasy, not a serious policy proposal.

So why does Saletan believe otherwise? Has he crunched the numbers himself? Of course not. What he’s doing – and what the whole Beltway media crowd has done – is to slot Ryan into a role someone is supposed to be playing in their political play, that of the thoughtful, serious conservative wonk. In reality, Ryan is nothing like that; he’s a hard-core conservative, with a voting record as far right as Michelle Bachman’s, who has shown no competence at all on the numbers thing.

What Ryan is good at is exploiting the willful gullibility of the Beltway media, using a soft-focus style to play into their desire to have a conservative wonk they can say nice things about. And apparently the trick still works.

Go to the original for relevant links. Krugman, as usual, is completely correct.


  1. #1 eric
    August 15, 2012

    But show me another Republican who has addressed the nation’s fiscal problems as candidly and precisely as Ryan has. He’s got the least detailed budget proposal out there, except for all the others.

    Aside from the other problems you mention, I would say that this claim is also false. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan was specific about tax structure. Perry listed which executive branch Departments he would cut (when he could remember his list). Ryan is maybe third-best in terms of Republican transparent-plan-ness, not first.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    August 15, 2012

    Jason quoting Saletan: Ryan is a real fiscal conservative.

    Except when he votes for tax cuts for the rich, foreign wars, expensive Medicare programs which are designed to not take full advantage of the government’s negotiating power, and bailing out insolvent banks. All of which he did while Bush was president. Ryan, like so many other Republicans, only became a deficit hawk after Obama was elected. Elect a Republican president, and suddenly deficits won’t matter anymore (or at least until the next time a Democrat is elected).

  3. #3 JimR.
    August 15, 2012

    Ben Goldacre has been blogging about UK newspapers printing articles based on some hired gun with an impressive degree or title conjuring up an equation about something and then plugging some numbers in it and getting headline worthy results. All bogus, but no retractions ever appear. Innumeracy and lack of ability to predict probabilities is a serious problem for most people.

    Most folks have to rely on authority for assessment of calculations and hate being told their authority figure just fed them a load.

  4. #4 Todd
    August 15, 2012

    This is an intellectually lazy post. Equating ridiculous creationist arguments with questions of policy and economic assumptions? Bringing in Paul Krugman as some type of objective arbiter of fact as if there aren’t plenty of economists who disagree with him (strangely enough, most of them being experts in monetary policy unlike Krugman)? Try broadening your reading base – for example http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444184704577587144261496760.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEFTTopOpinion. Many people think the current administrations fiscal policies and assumptions are as wrong minded as you think Ryan’s are. This is fundamentally different from a debate on evolution. Scientists who confuse fact with policy give science a bad name.

  5. #5 SLC
    August 15, 2012

    Re Todd

    Citing an article in the Wall Street Journal, second only to Fox News as a shill for the Rethuglican Party, is hardly an unbiased source. It’s even worse because the article cited was on the WSJ editorial page, a source of crackpottery even before the paper was purchased by Murdock. The reporters for the WSJ, who, at least at won time were among the bet in the business, consider the editorial page to be a vast source of amusement. Nobody with an IQ above the single digits takes it seriously.

  6. #6 SLC
    August 15, 2012

    Re Todd

    I notice that Prof. Barro, the author of the article, is currently a fellow at the Hoover Institute, another den of crackpots.

  7. #7 Todd
    August 15, 2012

    RE: SLC
    Hmmmm… and the NYT is what???? And Krugman writes for what part of the NYT????? Your email suggests you have a comprehension problem. Retake grades 4-7, reread post, and try again. But remember, despite your faults, you’re a special person.

  8. #8 Joe
    August 15, 2012

    Let me get this straight, Todd. In your first comment you made several assertions. When SLC responds to your assertions you do not engage in a conversation or with counter-assertions but with insults? Besides being rude that doesn’t show a lot of confidence in your original statements.

  9. #9 uknowispeaksense
    August 15, 2012

    Todd, try answering the response directly rather than resorting to childish insults. You provided a reference. it is dodgy for the reasons outlined. The onus is now on you to demonstrate why your reference isn’t dodgy.

  10. #10 greg byshenk
    August 16, 2012

    Todd, the issue is not whether one agrees with to policies of some candidate or party, but whether the math in some proposal makes sense. And the Ryan budget doesn’t. Even that noted lefty David Stockman (Reagan’s OMB Chief) notes that “Mr. Ryan’s plan is devoid of credible math or hard policy choices.”

  11. #12 SLC
    August 16, 2012

    Re Todd

    Mr. Todd gave a link to an article on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. He then comes back and says that Paul Krugman is a columnist for the New York Times. What does one fact have to do with the other fact?

  12. #13 Todd
    August 16, 2012

    You guys can’t be serious, can you? I am going to have to double-down and speculate that most followers of this blog have a reading comprehension issue. It is unfortunate that you will never grasp the irony I see in your posts. Two parting thoughts:
    1. Please reassess your faux indignation at my insults after rereading SLCs post. Hint: try to get past the childish ranting of opinion posing as fact and the false intimation of personal relationships with former WSJ reporters and see if you can detect any condescension and sarcasm that might elicit a response in kind. If you fail on your first attempt, reread slowly and aloud.
    2. You might think about storming the halls of Harvard, expressing your outrage that they let any conservative, much less a right-wing crackpot like Prof. Barro, through their hallowed left wing gates. Perhaps, it slipped through the cracks during the tenure of that fascist totalitarian Larry Summers. Check that – I forgot Summers is a former Obama economics advisor.
    Adios Muchachos.

  13. #14 MDR
    August 16, 2012

    Todd = a great example of an intellectual lightweight. “I’m right, you’re wrong. But I’m going to leave now before anyone (further) refutes my point”.

  14. #15 SLC
    August 16, 2012

    Re Todd

    Adios Muchachos.

    Mr. Todd should be careful not to let the door slam into his posterior on his way out.

  15. #16 Composer99
    August 16, 2012


    Crackpottery is crackpottery, whatever the political slant it has.

    Don’t like it? Tough.

  16. #18 Xuuths
    August 16, 2012

    The graphs from the story in the paper were better than the online version.

  17. #19 DuaneBidoux
    Denver, CO
    August 17, 2012

    There is a reason why it is so tough for people like Todd to come to a site like Science Blogs. They find an overwhelming number of liberals and it is hard on them.

    And it certainly explains why the right has become so anti-science and even, I would say, anti-Enlightenment: It is simply true that by an overwhelming margin educated people are on the liberal side of the spectrum. I do not believe this was always the case. I do believe there used to be real people of the conservative political persuasion who were conservative. But those conservatives with intellectual girth and integrity were long ago driven out.

    The long and the short of it is that when you realize that most educated people fall at least a bit left on the political spectrum there is only one conclusion to make if you wish to preserve your worldview: a liberal conspiracy to take over education and the scientific establishment. Of course the truth is that education and science knowledge are first causes in moving one in that direction.

    Reality has become the most insidious of all liberal conspiracies and that is the worst hell for a poor conservative to deal with.

New comments have been disabled.