How to Lie With Statistics

Did you watch the big hearing in Congress the other day? Congressional Republicans, having failed completely with their plan of holding their breath until the Democrats and Obama agreed to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, had to settle for the consolation prize. They hauled up Cecile Richards, PP's president, so they could browbeat her for five hours. If you watch any five minute segment of it you will have seen the whole thing. The Republicans asked one stupid, mendacious question after another, and then cut Richards off the second she tried to answer. I'm sure the crazies loved it, but I don't think the Republicans made any inroads toward getting the all-important sane vote.

An especially interesting moment came when Jason Chaffetz, a congressman from Utah, presented what he thought was a damning piece of evidence against Richards. It was a graph showing two lines. One showed the number of “Cancer Screenings and Preventative Services” offered by PP. This line was pointing down with a high slope. The second line showed the number of abortions over the same time period. This line was pointing up with a high slope. The lines crossed somewhere in the middle. The point was to challenge PP's claim that abortions make up a tiny percentage of the services they provide. “I got these numbers from your own corporate reports,” Chaffetz intoned.

Now, as Richards had the satisfaction of pointing out, this was a big lie by Chaffetz. The graph came from a pro-life website, and not from his own meticulous reading of corporate reports. The way we know it came from that website is that Chaffetz's chart had the source clearly printed at the bottom.

More than that, though, the chart is a real masterpiece of dishonesty. It takes people with no conscience at all to produce a graph as dishonest as this one. Kevin Drum has the full details. The graph, you see, had no y-axis. Without that, what you have is not any honest presentation of data, but rather just two lines with made-up slopes.

The actual numbers speak for themselves. According to what is on the chart, the number of abortions went from roughly 289,000 to 327,000, between 2006 and 2013. During that same time period, cancer screenings and whatnot went from a little over two million down to roughly 935,000. Of course, cancer screenings hardly cover the totality of PP's non-abortion services. When you factor in STD testing and contraceptive services, the number goes from slightly over nine million in 2006, to 8,892,000 in 2013.

Yet somehow, these lines managed to cross on Chaffetz's graph.

To anyone capable of looking at and understanding numbers, this is a complete vindication of PP's claim that abortion is a tiny percentage of the services they provide. Chaffetz's graph proves the exact opposite of what he said it proved. But the pathological liars of the far right do not care about such things.

More like this

Yeah, that graph was bad. I'm not sure it even counts as 'lying with statistics'. That sort of implies that you're leaving out critical numerical information. In this case while there was some additional numerical information it would have been useful to have, the numbers he showed were really sufficient to tell the story, they just needed to be graphed correctly. So IMO this was just outright, normal lying.
Now I'm sure Chaffetz's staffers knew exactly what they were doing when they prepared that graph. But given Chaffetz's comments about the lines crossing, I seriously wonder whether he was in on it, or just so stupid that when he got handed this chart from his staffers, he couldn't think through what the numbers meant.

It was stupendously bad, and one of the most blatant bits of dishonesty they've tried. But these clowns are used to presenting stuff like to the people who are already on their side, and they never bother to critique what's provide. Chaffetz may have known it was bogus (personally, I doubt that, but...) but he's so used to never being questioned he didn't anticipate being called on it.

I'm sure this has been pointed out also, probably by Kevin Drum among others, but how arrogantly dumb do Chaffetz/his staffers have to be to think this bogosity was going to stump Richards? Did they think she didn't know the correct statistics for her organization or had lied about them in public, and didn't bother to check the facts?

I would like to see a Democratic senator present the facts of this to the Senate and demand a retraction and apology, and if those are not forthcoming, present a bill of censure. Something needs to be done to stop the lies and misinformation. (Yes, I'm sure some Democrats have done similar things, although I don't know of any, and if so they deserve the same suggested treatment.)

I've never written or phoned any of my congressional representatives, but maybe I will about this.

how arrogantly dumb do Chaffetz/his staffers have to be to think this bogosity was going to stump Richards?

IMO this is about manufacturing video bytes and playing to the camera. As long as they get seen by their constituents as waving the conservative flag, they win. If they make her look bad for a few moments and so get an extra juicy video byte out of it to use later, that's even better, but if they try and fail, it probably doesn't hurt them much.

Remember, this hearing was called by the Republicans and is one of a series they will have on Planned Parenthood. Its highly unlikely that 'fact-finding' was any part of the motivation.

Something needs to be done to stop the lies and misinformation.

Hah! Well, if the Democratic members care enough, they can also grandstand but with honest data. Maybe call different hearings. Other than that, the mechanistic "something" our system uses to fix this sort of bad behavior is election.


Done. I just emailed my NYS senators with a quote from this blog and the link to Kevin Drum's post, and my own demand for a response on the Senate floor. I can't vote against Chaffetz in my state but I've done what I can do.

I would also sign a petition promising to donate (an extra) $50 to the campaign or favorite charity of every senator, D or R or whatver, who would join in the suggested denunciation. If a few thousand of us did so, who knows, it might turn into real money. Unfortunately I don't have the leadership qualities to get such a petition off the ground myself (but I make a good follower).

You can fool all of the conservatives all of the time.

By AnswersInGenitals (not verified) on 01 Oct 2015 #permalink

JimV #5: I would also sign a petition promising to donate (an extra) $50 to the campaign or favorite charity of every senator, D or R or whatever, who would join in the suggested denunciation.

You should be careful to frame it as quid pro quo. Politicians should not be accepting bribes, no matter how just the cause.

By Bayesian Bouff… (not verified) on 01 Oct 2015 #permalink

@7: $50 is right at the single item gift limit, so there's no problem, he's good. At least until he makes his third offer - total gifts can't exceed $100/year, no matter what their individual value.

@5: there is one New York member on the committee running the hearings. If that's your rep, she can officially do something about it. Be aware however that if your rep isn't on the committee, they'll have no official power to influence the hearings. Though they can always do some unofficial favor-trading.

I think its worth taking a step back though, and realizing that the Republican-controlled Senate passing a 3-month budget extension earlier this week is a pretty good indication that the PP stuff is mostly bluster. The GOP had a shot this week to hold up the budget unless PP was defunded, and they didn't take it. Both parts of Congress will get more shots, and the House is more volatile than the Senate, but still, as first indications go, this was a good one for us and a bad one for tea party shutdown advocates.…

If one looks at the US stats - after peaking in 1979, the number of abortions per 1000 live births have drop by about 5.4 per year - after 1990 by 6.3 per year.

The total number of abortions peaked in 1990 and since then the numbers have dropped by almost 34,000 per year.

In spite of the best efforts of the right to limit sex education and birth control.....

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 01 Oct 2015 #permalink

I think you're giving this morons way too much credit. Chaffetz is a Mormon which by definition means he's mentally challenged. Q.E.D. enough said.

You have to remember they got to where they are by winning a popularity test, not an IQ test.

Eric #4
You are right about the purpose of graphs and presentations like this, ie. that they serve to produce video bytes. In this they serve the same role as the anti-evolution books published by the the DI et al. Their primary function is to reinforce the beliefs of their followers solely by virtue of their existence. The actual content of such PR tools is immaterial. The reinforcement doesn't derive from a critical (or, in most cases, any) examination of the contents. It is sufficient that a graph was seen, or that the books exist. An equivalence in intellectual honesty and content between the sides can then assumed, and the solid foundation of one's own rightness is reaffirmed.

By KenPhelps (not verified) on 03 Oct 2015 #permalink