Author of Southern Stories



Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics


Worried about your investments?  Concerned that your IRA and 401-K plans have tanked, leaving you with the prospect of taking in boarders to fund your retirement?  Well, good news!  I am going to share with you an absolutely 100% guaranteed plan to make you 100 times more likely to win the Lottery.   That’s a 10,000% increase in your chances!  But first, a few words on the exciting world of statistics.

Mention “statistics” and most people immediately associate it with such pleasant memories as the crusty old professor who waxed eloquent about the intrinsic beauty of correlation coefficients and multivariate equations, or perhaps thoughts of their last root canal.  But in truth, statistical analysis is part of our daily life.  We just don’t call it that. 

When we say that something is “likely” to happen, we usually mean that the chances are greater than 50% that it will.  Or if we say it is “probably” going to happen, we mean 7 chances out of 8, or perhaps 9 out of 10.  You get the idea. 

But it’s the misuse of statistics that makes life fun.  We see it every day and rarely recognize it.  One wag pronounced statistics as the science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures.   Politicians love it.  Say that you ask a random group of voters to rate Mr. X, a rather bland, middle-of-the-road elected official.  You give them 3 choices:  poor, adequate, and good.  Assuming that he hadn’t offended too many people, you might find that 15% consider his record “poor,” the same percentage “good,” and the vast majority, 70%, as “adequate,” whatever that means.  When election time rolls around you’ll have his opponent screaming that only one out of seven people (or about 15%) think X is doing a good job.  X’s handlers, on the other hand, will say that 85% of his constituents endorse his record.  Same numbers, different spin.

With a bit of ingenious thinking, one can distort all sorts of numbers.  Take averages for example.  Ever hear the story about the man who drowned crossing a river that averaged only one foot in depth?   Perhaps you’d like to do some good by raising the average income of a poor African country?   All you’ve got to do is convince Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to move there.  Even in the good old USA, as many as half of all workers earn a below-average income.  Averages ignore extremes, and it’s the extremes of life that give us our most intense pleasure and pain. 

One joyful source of statistical misinformation is the concept of relative versus absolute numbers.  I saw an ad on television the other day for one of the “buttery spreads” (read vegetable oil) that advertises “Zero Trans-Fats.”  Now remember, the average American consumer has no idea what a trans-fat is, much less how much is bad for you.  Add this on to the fact that we think in pounds and ounces, not grams.  The “buttery spread” warned us that under government rules, products with “zero” trans-fats can actually have up to 0.49 grams per serving.  Do you have any idea how much that is?  There are 454 grams in a pound, so 0.49 grams less than 1/900 of a pound.  The proud product had an even smaller fraction.  The advertiser was no doubt banking on consumer ignorance, hoping that by tossing around some vague numbers, health conscious housewives would be intimated into buying his product.  As my grandmother would say, “Weren’t none there in the first place.”

And there’s the association-causation conundrum.  Just because things seem to be linked doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other.  Or does it?  It won’t surprise you to know June is the most popular month for weddings.  But it’s also the most popular month for suicides.  And when you think of where to get married, there’s Las Vegas with its dozens of wedding chapels.  The city with far and away the highest suicide rate in America?  Ditto.  That’s how rumors get started.

Folks with products to promote love percentages, most of which sound great but have no meaning.  Remember Ivory Soap’s slogan, “99 and 44 one-hundredths percent pure”?  Pure what?  Ever see a bottle of this or that cleaning solution that “contains 25% more”?  As compared to what, a smaller size at less cost? 

The percentages game even laps over into medical nostrums.  Have you ever heard of the “placebo effect”?   Numerous studies have shown that pills containing no active medicine will give partial or complete relief half to two-thirds of the time for conditions ranging from hypertension to hysteria.  Knowing this, the purveyors of vitamins and magical “tropical fruit and berry juices” make millions despite the almost complete lack of objective scientific evidence supporting their claims.  Noni juice anyone?

Some scientists and pollsters are tripped up by their own incompetence.  A classic example is the Literary Digest poll done for the 1936 presidential election contest between Landon and Roosevelt.  The Digest had picked the election winner before, and 1936 was to be no exception.  They sent out some 10 million ballots to voters, most of whose addresses were chosen from telephone and automobile registration records.   Landon, the Republican, was predicted to be the winner by a landslide.  The final results, however, only gave him 37% of the vote.  What happened?  In the post-mortems that followed, the pollsters realized that those who could afford a phone or a car in Depression-era America were likely to be Republicans anyway, effectively ignoring the huge number of voters who put Roosevelt back in office.  Lessons were learned, but polling is still a very inexact science and one that is easily manipulated to yield the desired result. 

Sometimes the floods of spurious number-backed claims are almost enough to drive you mad.   Which brings to mind a supposedly reliable statistic from the National Institute of Mental Health.  They state, unequivocally, that more than one in four American adults “suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.”  Think of your three best friends.  Any of them a bit crazy?  If not, have a look in the mirror—you could well be that one in four.

It gets worse.  If you live in south Georgia, you have about a one in three chance of being obese.  By the time you’re age 50, there’s a one in two chance that you’ve got hemorrhoids, which are the same odds as your having a doctor-given diagnosis of arthritis by age 65.  Given these numbers, you have a pretty good chance of running into a fat, mentally ill senior citizen with arthritis and hemorrhoids on your next trip to the mall.  Better hope they’re in a good mood not carrying a gun. (By the way, 4 out of every 10 Georgians admit to being gun owners….)

The truth is there’s no truth in statistics.  They’re often used like a drunk uses a lamp post, more for support than illumination.  Mark Twain said it best when he observed that, “Facts are stubborn.  Statistics are more pliable.”

So, back to the lottery.  Want to win the MEGA Millions game currently being offered by the Georgia Lottery?  You can increase your chance of winning by 10,000% simply by buying a hundred tickets instead of one.  Your chances go from one in 175,711,536 to one in 1,757,115—more or less.  Before you get your hopes up though, even with those odds you’re about four and a half times more likely to be struck by lightning during any given year.  Don’t give up quite yet.  There must be a way to spin that; with the creative use of statistics we can all be winners.


About the author:  William Rawlings is a physician and author from Sandersville, Georgia.  During a moment of temporary insanity when he was young and foolish, he earned a Masters Degree in Epidemiology and Biostatistics, starting him on a cynical course in life that persists to this very day.