A Lesson in Applied Probability

Nate Silver provides the antidote to some dubious statistical reasoning on the part of certain conservatives. He was replying in particular to this column from Peggy Noonan. A column, mind you, that opens with, “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.” Goodness! Then she presents evidence like this:

The second part of the scandal is the auditing of political activists who have opposed the administration. The Journal’s Kim Strassel reported an Idaho businessman named Frank VanderSloot, who’d donated more than a million dollars to groups supporting Mitt Romney. He found himself last June, for the first time in 30 years, the target of IRS auditors. His wife and his business were also soon audited. Hal Scherz, a Georgia physician, also came to the government’s attention. He told ABC News: “It is odd that nothing changed on my tax return and I was never audited until I publicly criticized ObamaCare.”

Franklin Graham, son of Billy, told Politico he believes his father was targeted. A conservative Catholic academic who has written for these pages faced questions about her meager freelance writing income. Many of these stories will come out, but not as many as there are. People are not only afraid of being audited, they’re afraid of saying they were audited.

Anecdotes. Powerful stuff. But Silver brings the bucket of cold water:

Ms. Noonan is surely correct that many conservative taxpayers were audited. In fact, based on some simple math that I’ll present in a moment, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of Mitt Romney voters were selected for an audit in 2012.

However, it’s also likely that hundreds of thousands of Mr. Obama’s supporters were audited. Although the percentage of taxpayers who are audited is relatively low — about 1 percent — the number of taxpayers in the United States is so large that this still yields well more than a million audits every year, across the political spectrum.

That’s just the beginning. The details come later.


  1. #1 Reginald Selkirk
    May 21, 2013

    … who’d donated more than a million dollars to groups supporting Mitt Romney.

    Let me guess – did he try to declare those political contributions as tax-deductible?

  2. #2 dean
    May 21, 2013

    The “rebuttal” to this that is beginning to make the rounds here in Michigan is that Silver’s work ‘is just numbers and calculations’ but the people about whom Noonan writes ‘are real and present facts.’
    As long as the target audience for writers like Noonan and other Republican contortionists refuse to look at facts and continue to take ‘news’ as quick little sound bites, personal anecdotes, and crap that is simply made up, articles like Silver’s will do nothing but allow those of us who had already figured such things out to nod our heads in agreement.
    The cynic in me is reaching the point of believing ‘intelligent discussions’ with many of those on the right is no longer possible.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    May 22, 2013

    We don’t even know how onerous an audit this gentleman got. It could have been as simple as a request for documentation to support the number on a certain line of his tax form (which has happened to me, and if you’re doing your taxes honestly, it is not too difficult to deal with), or it could have been the full-blown line-by-line examination that all taxpayers dread.

    I also don’t buy his line about nothing changing on his tax return. (We have no way of independently verifying his assertion, since in the US tax returns are private.) If you’re suddenly taking a lot more in itemized deductions such as donations to charitable organizations (which may be the case here, if he was contributing to pro-Romney 501(c)4 groups), the IRS is going to notice, and they are going to want documentation. 501(c)4 groups, as we have learned from this kerfluffle, are often a way to disguise political advocacy groups as charities. Again, that shouldn’t be too difficult to produce; such groups are required to give you receipts on any cash donation over a certain threshold, and if you are donating a million bucks to 501(c)4 groups, you are going to be well over that threshold.

  4. #4 MNb
    May 22, 2013

    Off-topic: I want to express my anger that you have left poor us completely alone for four frigging weeks! In other words: I have missed you.

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    June 2, 2013

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