By Charlie Mckenna, Staff Writer

Statistics are powerful. And with election season upon us, we are all pushed into a throng of incoherent, overly impassioned (angry) and of course, ambiguous statistic citing conversations.

How many debates have you been in that were brought to an abrupt end because somebody brought in an united statistic to prove their point? There’s no arguing with facts, so the person with the most statistics wins the argument right? It’s science, after all. So it’s irrefutable, right? Not quite. 

So, in the guise of promoting a more sophisticated approach to social science, I will give those of the more choleric persuasion the opportunity to salvage what would be a lost argument. 

Evaluating Statistics

In our search for truth, using any statistic aren’t enough. In order to argue articulately from statistics, there are three questions a person should consider.

1. What are the principles behind the statistic? 

We all operate our lives by guiding principles, and they should filter how we approach a statistic. Use of stats by themselves isn’t fruitful enough to support cogent and comprehensive perspective; they aren’t about ideas, they’re just numbers. Let’s be clear, statistics are an important part of the information age and how we perceive and listen to (or disregard) ideas. But in the end, we should make our decisions out of principle. 

This might sound like throwing reason out the window, but it’s actually just being consistent. This also applies to the organization which produces a statistic. Everybody has an agenda, and an organization’s principles color their studies. This doesn’t make studies useless as a whole, and research should never be discounted solely because of its source, yet the source should be taken into account. Never accept a statistic if you don’t know who did it, and don’t use statistics that aren’t cited by their parent affiliate. 

2. What are the stats on the statistic? 

Just because a statistic is doesn’t make it true. Take the statistics of the father of “sexology,” Alfred Kinsey. His statistics in the 1950s dramatically changed how people thought about and behaved regarding sex. Yet, when his studies are examined objectively, it is clear that their results were misleading. 

For instance, he stated that 40% of men had engaged in some form of homosexual activity. The inaccuracy in the study came from Kinsey’s disproportionate use of ex-convicts in his study group. However, many took his results as doctrine. Even though it wasn’t supported, they simply accepted it because it was seen as science. Kinsey’s study was so influential that he is still studied in many gender and women's studies programs; while his work was influential in sparking discussion about sexuality, his methods were not always accurate and his studies cannot all be taken at face value. 

So when somebody gives you a statistic, don’t just accept it as true. Many just looked at a Buzzfeed article and believe statistics, when there is so much more to a study than the end number. Know the scope of the study, the demographics included, and the institutional integrity.

3. Is there more than one? 

For any issue, there are studies and polls supporting both sides. However, it is important to consider which side has the greater consensus of (as far as it is possible) unbiased findings.

So now, with election season in full swing, when your Trump-supporting friend cites a statistic that he “saw somewhere” about how 80% of Muslim immigrants are terrorists, you know what to say.

AuthorCharlie McKenna