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Political Math

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I saw some data on the news and noticed that there was missing information. My spidey senses were tingling and this gave me the idea to talk about how graphs can be used creatively to make just about any point you’d like to make. The numbers can be valid, but intentionally flawed uses inspire different types of reactions. I am NOT making a political statement here or talking about my beliefs on the topic of the data. I just want to show how data can be manipulated to inspire all kinds of emotions and conclusions. The math may be accurate, but people using it trick you by leaving out information or presenting it in a misleading way. For instance, when they talk about COVID deaths have you noticed there are two different kinds of percentages? Some are really small and others are way larger. They get these percentages from either using the number of death in terms of the number of people who had COVID or the number of deaths compared to the entire population—sick or not sick. And whichever statistic is used is can make people feel safer or more scared.

The first thing I noticed is that there were several age groups left out of the data. Why did they leave it out? I have a theory but that gets into politics so I leave that for you to think about. Then they started talking about percentages of deaths and without the missing numbers I’d have to do some algebra to figure out how many people were included in the missing data. But I forgot to write down the percentages so I can’t do the algebra now. 😰

Here is a great link that shows several misleading graphs and some of the many ways data can be manipulated.

If I you see graphs in the news, be sure to pay attention to the axes (axes are two or more axis). To show a more dramatic result people adjust the vertical axis (y axis) to small numbers so that the change seems more dramatic. Or they will place a break at the start of it so that a casual look will seem to be a huge difference, but it may actually start at 50% instead of 0%.

Sometimes the wrong graphs are used. There are very different uses for bar graphs and pie charts. Bar graphs show the differences between groups, and pie charts show how much of the whole thing (100%) each group accounts for.

When companies have data that isn’t favorable, they may pick and choose which parts of data to show rather than giving you an overall, big picture graph. In the next graph the data looks impressive for a three month window, but the overall is declining drastically over the years.

So always, ALWAYS pay attention to the details of the graph and question where the data comes from. Did they not label an axis so you could assume what they are comparing? Is a title missing so wrong assumptions can be made? When you hear a positive result on something that seems too good to be true, it really might be. For instance, the headline: “Butter is Good For You” may come from a study paid for by the dairy industry where the research method is questionable and the conclusions are not valid.

I have this math t-shirt that says “fear nothing but ignorance, question everything.” Question statistics in the news and advertising.

And something that I’d like everyone to keep in mind: value your worth. You are amazing!

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