Somewhere along the way, most of us have used statistics to prove a point, to win an argument, defend a position, or advance a cause we felt strongly about. In reality, statistics are quite helpful for comparisons but can be skewed to help us promote our opinion or position if we only share part of the story. For this reason, we need to ask ourselves when we see, hear, or read statistics about behavior or occurrences that we immediately ask ourselves if this coincides with our experience set. Is what we are seeing or hearing consistent with what we know or believe to be true apart from some numbers seem to represent? When they don’t, we shouldn’t use or believe them.
Repetition is one of the ways statistics gain credibility and traction – even when they don’t represent what really happened or what actually exists. There’s an old saying that says that statistics can be used to prove or disprove most anything and that we can lie with statistics. There does seem to be some basis for this thought.
A classic example of this is the glass-half-full or glass-half-empty scenario. Those who figuratively look at a glass of water that is half full and reporting on it may say or claim that half of the population has an optimistic outlook or looks upon a certain issue favorably. The converse to this position is the person looking at this glass and claiming that half of the people surveyed or included are not inclined to look favorably upon this or are pessimistic at its chances. Nevertheless, it’s the same glass of water – just with two interpretations.
Part of the difference in interpretation is what we want statistics to show to bolster our case. Part of it is based on life experiences – the way we typically look at something as being half-full or half-empty with the exact same set of conditions.
One thing that helps to justify any position advanced with statistics is the stature of the body or organization issuing the report from which the statistics are obtained. AARP is a prestigious organization when it comes to issues affecting seniors, so when anyone says that according to AARP, this percentage or ratio of people behave one way or exhibit a certain characteristic, people will tend to believe our argument. The Census Bureau is another such agency or organization with the credibility to be believed when quoting what they learned, found, or reported on being true or occurring. University studies, such as those referencing coffee consumption, longevity, or other issues affecting our health and well-being, tend to bolster our argument and aren’t refuted on the surface. People may challenge our use of certain statistics or our interpretation of them, but the actual numbers or findings from a report or publication from a credible research organization will stand generally.
People wanting to show how prevalent the desire is to age in place will often quote AARP statistics that illustrate this, but those statistics change a little over time, and the population included changes also. This is often left out of the reporting. While AARP generally represents people age 50 and over, some of their reports about remaining at home start at age 45. Other reports start at their traditional age 50, and some even use an age 65 and over for this discussion. So, even using figures from a reputable source like AARP, without adding what the study is based upon, will say that two-thirds, over three-quarters, nearly all, or the vast majority of adults want to age in place or continue living where they are. All are true, but different groups of the population are referenced and surveyed to arrive at these findings.
Still, someone – without referencing the entire study or allowing the listener the benefit of the bigger picture can use the same information to present their viewpoint. For instance, they can say that over 10 percent, more than one-tenth, or an even higher percentage – but still small – chooses to live their remaining years in a managed care facility. This argument – without the benefit of additional information – may sound persuasive, suggesting that of the other ninety percent of so that there are several responses and that the ten percent response is the one representing the most people. If twenty people were running for elected office, and one candidate polled ten percent of the vote while everyone else split the remaining ninety percent, that could be considered a good showing for that candidate.
The point is that often we can use statistics to rame our own argument or position so when we hear others using them we need to take a mental step back and examine if we are learning the entire story or just what they want us to hear.