Statistics are lies!? Damn not!

Mr. Goldstein’s belief that statistics are lies is largely fuelled by misconceptions about statistics and its role in decision making. Sadly, this kind of uninformed opinions had a lot to do with the absurd proposal to make Canada’s census voluntary.


I know this post is two weeks late and I am sorry about that. Still, better late than never.

This is a reply to Lorrie Goldstein’s column, “Stats, smoke and mirrors”, in which he rants about crime rates and Statistics Canada―the Canadian statistics agency. In my opinion, his diatribe is foolish, unfair and uninformed.

In an effort to be straightforward, this is what I will discuss:

  1. If decision makers don’t know how to use statistics, then they are the problem; don’t blame statistics for that.
  2. Mr. Goldstein’s “analysis” of crime rates is useless and superficial.

In his column, Mr. Goldstein complains that reporting a decrease in crime rates leads politicians to cut on policing and prison spending. I don’t know whether this true or not. But if it is, politicians are to blame because they should not be making these decisions based solely on crime rates. Statisticians create indicators so lay people like Mr. Goldstein can see trends and ask questions; they provide “red flags” when needed, and help monitor a situation. By no means, these figures are showing a whole picture.

In order to make rational decisions, any decision maker should look deeper into the data and find out more specific information. For instance, which kinds of crimes are responsible for most of the reduction? Are all types of felonies decreasing in frequency? Is there any particular offence that is occurring more often? Which demographic group is participating less in illegal activities? By answering this kind of questions, politicians can better understand the problem and choose where to cut spending, how to redistribute resources, or which kind of crimes to target.

This leads to my second point. Mr. Goldstein concludes that “crime has increased 321% since 1962.” So what? This statement alone informs nothing and it is completely useless. No rational decision can be made based on this “analysis”. Mr. Goldstein’s conclusion could have some weight if he had compared these figures with other indicators: has the gap between the rich and the poor increased as well? What about cultural diversity, unemployment, demographic density, drug addiction, or housing prices? Are these variables related to the raise in crime that you claim is true? Does any of these other indicators help us rethink the decline?

Had Mr. Goldstein done that, he would probably have realized that the Canada of 1962 is not directly comparable to the Canada of 2010. Had he known a little more about analytics, he would have realized that drawing conclusions from just one indicator is foolish, irresponsible, and sometimes, dangerous. Sadly, many business executives and politicians think like Mr. Goldstein.

To conclude, Mr. Goldstein’s belief that statistics are lies is largely fuelled by misconceptions about statistics and its role in decision making. Unfortunately, this kind of uninformed opinions had a lot to do with the absurd proposal to make Canada’s census voluntary.

7 thoughts on “Statistics are lies!? Damn not!”

  1. Well Tak, you know what they say: “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” No statistical report is without bias. Kind of like how true democracy is a myth. If you think about it, only computers can decide on important issues completely devoid of emotion. (But they’re not always good decisions.)

    1. Hi Tony!

      Thank for commenting! I really appreciate it.

      Like you, I think that all statistics are biased in one way or another. I just don’t think this makes them all lies, because researchers (the honest ones, at least) use safeguards against them. Granted, do not ensure that we know “the truth”. However, when these protections are applied we can be confident in statistical reports, in the same way we are confident in any other research finding.

      Finally, I disagree with the idea that emotion is somehow contrary to rationality; this is a huge misunderstanding. Rational decisions must involve emotions. For instance, when you are deciding over a medical treatment for a serious illness, you have to consider your future emotional state in the face of a given outcome. On the other side of the spectrum, people who avoid regret, instead of accepting it, become ineffective because they don’t make any choices.

      Thanks for visiting. Cheers!

      1. Well said. Statistics are like dynamite… only as good or bad as the one reeading them. they are not true or lie… they are statistics. I do work with them all day long, and i bet i have made may fair share of mistakes, but mostly, they have helped us to take good descicions.

        why do marketing people like me do invest so much money on @$# statistics.. becasue as I said, is an investment, and even tough famous mistakes and blunders are wrongly attibuted to statistics, when we do it right seldom the results are so dramatic and worth commenting.

        Some times I hate them, some times i love them…. but they are still the same… statistics… not true not lies…. just statistics.

  2. Hey Tak, good to know there are still people who know what statistics are, even when our government officials and “reporters” do not.

    Furthermore, I’ve adopted a soothing mantra I believe you’ll like.

    Lorrie Goldstein is to journalism
    as Dick Cheney is to hunting.

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