I like charts. I like graphs. I like the presentation of large quantities of data in visual form. It’s just neat.
But there is a danger in charts, numbers and statistics. You’ve heard the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” It was popularly attributed to Mark Twain. It’s a phrase “describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments, and the tendency of people to disparage statistics that do not support their positions. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt statistics used to prove an opponent’s point.” Says Wikipedia. Two people can use the same data to prove opposite points- if you are unscrupulous. And there are a lot of unscrupulous statisticians, governments, and officials these days.
I read about earthquakes and volcanoes and tornadoes and unemployment and I know from past experience having been a reporter, that it is always in the Officials’ best interest to hide, manipulate, and change data. Did you ever wonder why Educational Standardized tests were radically changed every few years? Because it is a general good statistics practice to keep the testing methods the same for at least three years so as to get a baseline. So quite often, the test is changed and in year four and you suddenly find you can’t compare apples to apples anymore and the data comparisons are tainted.
I also know of cases where the data being compared was deliberately manipulated. “They wouldn’t do that!” you gasp. I know. You’re shocked, shocked. But it happens all too frequently. As a matter of fact, data manipulation is usually the default these days. For example, a School Superintendent I know who worked far away and many years ago, was sharing the proposed budget for that year with the community. He had “helpfully” put the information in graphs, and comparing the graph of the last two years with this proposed year, the budget didn’t look like it was going up very much. But he had left out certain information and it turned out that the data being presented for the previous years was actually a combination of a decade while the data for that year as stand-alone. Or something like that. In any case, it was a pure manipulation, which as a reporter, I exposed.
John Williams is a statistician and an economist who got tired of the Government changing its presentations for Unemployment every few years. For example the unemployment numbers for last year suddenly didn’t include short-term discouraged unemployed anymore. Those millions of folks were just dropped off the counts. Of course this flattens the spike, and makes it appear that there are fewer unemployed than there are. In 1994, they dropped off long-term unemployed, as if they simply didn’t exist. Williams decided to calculate unemployment the same way they have always been calculated. His website states, “John Williams’ Shadow Government Statistics” is an electronic newsletter service that exposes and analyzes flaws in current U.S. government economic data and reporting, as well as in certain private-sector numbers…” It is known locally as Shadow Stats.
When the United States Geological survey answers the question in April 2010, “Are there more earthquakes” this way, you just have to scratch your head: “China’s tragic magnitude 6.9 earthquake on April 13 and the recent devastating earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Mexico, and elsewhere have many wondering if this earthquake activity is unusual. Scientists say 2010 is not showing signs of unusually high earthquake activity. …With six major earthquakes striking in the first four months of this year, 2010 is well within the normal range. Furthermore, from April 15, 2009, to April 14, 2010, there have been 18 major earthquakes, a number also well within the expected variation.” What USGS doesn’t say is that the yearly average of ‘major’ quakes (7.0 mag and above) according to their own data was already exceeded by that point. He was comparing apples to oranges by comparing annual averages to expected variations.
What I always do it go to the raw data. I compare apples to apples, meaning, I compare a decade’s worth of activity to a decade’s worth of activity. I am consistent in the way I count. I use official sources where possible. Where there is a baseline, or an average, I use that. And generally, the longer the trend, the more stable the data. Comparing 2009 and 2010 earthquake activity doesn’t tell you as much as if you compare ten years’ worth. That is why the USGS data is so valuable, it goes back 111 years.
I have personally read these excuses from officials in answering whether there are more quakes, or volcanic eruptions, or tornadoes:
“It only seems like there’s more tornadoes because there is a higher population in the Midwest than there used to be.”
“It only seems like there’s more earthquakes because there is an increase in instruments placed around the world.”
“It only seems like there are more volcanic eruptions because there are more people in the areas where volcanoes are.”
Naw, there’s more of everything. Here is data, by the numbers:
EARTHQUAKES (As of June 15, 2011)
Source United States Geological Survey. Click on table to enlarge. One thing to let you know: for EQ’s in the 6.0-6.9 range for 2011, I put it in red even though it hasn’t exceeded the yearly average yet, because I wanted to highlight that we are only halfway through this year but quakes in that magnitude range already exceed the number of quakes that size that occurred in ALL of 2001. Also that the quakes for that particular magnitude are running way above normal pace compared to the yearly averages.
TORNADOES (June 1, 2011)
I was pleased to see that someone at Weather Channel experienced in meteorology and tornadoes in particular, decided to just do some data counting and did it with integrity. This is a ten-year look at tornado averages and the comparison to this year is amazing. The resulting article shows that the number of tornadoes is wayyyy up.
Source, Weather Channel: “Expert Says 2011 Tornadoes 106% Above Average”
VOLCANOES (Dec 31, 2010)
Source Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program. As of Dec 31, 2010
Unemployment, from John Williams’ Shadow Government Stats (SGS)
John Williams’ explanation-
“The seasonally-adjusted SGS Alternate Unemployment Rate reflects current unemployment reporting methodology adjusted for SGS-estimated long-term discouraged workers, who were defined out of official existence in 1994. That estimate is added to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) estimate of U-6 unemployment, which includes short-term discouraged workers. The U-3 unemployment rate is the monthly headline number. The U-6 unemployment rate is the BLS broadest unemployment measure, including short-term discouraged and other marginally-attached workers as well as those forced to work part-time because they cannot find full-time employment.”
Bank failures 2007-2010, source FDIC
The same data of bank failures but in a line chart. Just a different visual presentation
I guess the lesson here is that statistics can be massively manipulated. That the government isn’t telling us the truth about unemployment the economy, and the number of natural disasters. Just like the biblical Bereans, who were commended for checking the scriptures daily to see if these things were true, be a civic Berean and check the data yourself. In some of these cases, I literally and personally counted each item. Others, such as USGS earthquakes you can search by year and a total result would be given. Be diligent, suspect the government at all times, and be relieved that you know you can ALWAYS trust the Lord!
PS: you can use any of the charts. I’d appreciate a link back. If you use Shadow Stats’ unemployment chart you have to link back to ShadowStats.