Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Facts Don't Lie!

February 23, 2012

Dear Readers,

I think this speaks for itself:

It's appropriately ugly and a surprisingly accurate historical snapshot. 

"That's not fair," you say, "you have to put those things in context, Lincoln was fighting the Civil War!" No, it's not fair, but every one of those facts is true and the facts don't lie, do they? Lincoln is now considered one of the greatest presidents to ever serve the United States, but he was unpopular in his day. He won the 1860 election for the newly formed Republican party, but in 1864 they didn't even nominate him. Lincoln was too moderate for their progressive anti-slave agenda. Lincoln formed his own party and even then only barely captured a majority of the popular vote (consider that the Southern States didn't even vote in that election).

Here is the modern day equivalents of that graphic:
This one from an actual congressman, Allen West (House Republican from Florida)
Another one stumbled across with a Google search.
...and there are others floating around Facebook and the like that I have seen.

There are basic math errors here and both have questionable or non-existent sources. No explanation for whether the numbers are averages or if the min and max are even from the same geographical regions. More importantly, the context, history, and trends behind the numbers are absent, not to mention outright ignorance about what events created the fluctuation in those statistics to begin with. They just list facts... facts devoid of anything else to put them in proper context. The point is they are no different than the graphic about Lincoln up there.

This is sad because I think the intent is good and there might be some truth buried behind the bad implementation. We need healthy political debate and public scrutiny of what our business leaders, congressmen, and the president are doing. I would take a well written analysis very seriously. Neither of these are a well written or proper statistically supported analysis though. These are just badly done and misleading graphics (on a number of levels) designed to simply illicit a directed emotional response from the core Republican supporters. In my opinion Mr. West is acting in an irresponsible way as an elected leader when he could have produced something worthwhile and even earned my appreciation.

If you haven't read my previous letter, you should. I am well aware that "there is someone wrong on the Internet" will never go away, but it needs to be stated that the facts can and do lie if the person producing them is misrepresenting the data and that is the quickest way for a politician to lose my respect.


The Letter Writer


Dear Mr Lincoln,

I mean no disrespect to your memory. I can say without reservation, that no other president has worked harder or in more toxic circumstances to preserve our nation's solidarity. That is why I hope you won't mind if I invoke your legacy as an example to illustrate the dangers of misguiding and dividing the public opinion in divisive ways. At least I didn't turn you into a vampire fighting action hero, though it is cool that you accomplished that as well.


Someone who thinks you were a great President

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Truth Is Out There

February 22, 2012

Dear Reader,

Facts are beautiful things. The ability to accurately document the world we live in and represent it with numbers that are helpful and useful and can be examined to help improve life is a true benefit of the modern age. Unfortunately, facts on their own can be misinterpreted and very commonly, simply  misrepresented in a way that skews their purpose.

Never forget that the Internet does not have an editor. It is a collection of people and ideas. When you read a magazine, newspaper, or watch a news program, there is an editorial policy they must follow. Mistakes are followed up and retracted and the better the editor and policy, the more reputable and trusted the media source is. Sure, they can slant the story, and many media outlets know exactly how to represent numbers, even properly, to make them sound better or worse to their audience. Marketers do this all the time to sell products. Saying "50% more" is not the same as "twice as much". Median and Average are not the same thing and the words you use to frame the numbers can influence how they are viewed, even if completely factual. Compare these statements: "Politician A has barely kept even half of the promises that he made to his divided constituents" and "Politician A keeps a majority of his promises to his supporters." They can both be based on the exact same number and both statements mean exactly the same thing. The difference is in the language, focus, and wording.

How about a real world example? Perhaps you have seen one of these charts on your social networks or email talking about President Obama and the national deficit. Take a look at the difference here in the charts: Dueling Debt Deceptions.

Mark Twain has a famous quote on the subject he said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." It means, when someone tells you something on the Internet, it is worth looking up and double checking. People sometimes outright lie and misinformation is very easy to spread. Luckily, the Internet is a double edged sword. The ability to find the truth is also very simple, only a few Google searches away to a reputable source.

You can not show data points (or facts) without showing context and trends. It is the easiest way to skew information and it happens frequently. Politicians use it as a tool to mislead people and it is irresponsible to say the least. Do I expect them to improve? No, I don't, but I can encourage people to double check what they are told. Be your own editor on the Internet, it is actually pretty easy and there are some reputable media sites that will help you out with proper analysis and good editorial process. There is also  lot of easy to find data out there from census and government records to congressional budgets and independent surveys... all free.

These are both excellent sources for a quick check on popular issues.

I encourage you to check out the things people tell you, especially on the Internet. You don't have to "question everything" or go all paranoid, just be aware that it is in their best interest to slant things to their benefit. A Bipolitical stance means you often get to remove yourself from the rhetoric of each political party and it can allow you to see issues in a refreshingly truthful light.


The Letter Writer

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Little Family Political Gossip

February 11, 2012

Dear Readers,

I had the opportunity recently to visit with some extended family and it gave rise to a conversation very much worth sharing. I sat in a corner chatting with my grandmother while the rest of the family, mostly older aunts and uncles, turned the conversation to what can only realistically be described as political gossip. You have all heard it, it's just people spreading gossip and rumors they got off of Facebook or an email forward about so-and-so politician and then interspersing a few lame jokes to cement their already obvious political opinions. This was a group of conservatives so it was all Obama bashing and whatever dirt was out on the Republican presidential hopefuls they didn't like.

The fun part came when my grandmother leaned over and asked me, "How do you vote... are you Republican or Democrat?" I answered her as truthfully as I could with a quick little bipoliticalist viewpoint. I said, "I am neither. I vote for candidates from both parties, but before I do I find out if they agree with the things that are important to me and if they are a respectable and ethical person. I look up their personal history, their voting history, and the things other people say about them. Just because someone belongs to a certain political party doesn't mean that I agree with them. This is especially important in local politics where the decisions they make will actually affect me." I noticed the room seemed to be listening so I added, "I also have no respect or patience for people who show up to vote and mark all the R's or all the D's and don't even know know who some of the candidates are that they just voted for, or know anything besides the name and political party." She will be 100 years old if she lives a few more years and has been a Republican for as long as I have known her, but bless-her-heart, she nodded and said, "That is a very respectable way to do things." The room became awkwardly quiet and then the subject changed rather abruptly to local sports or something.

I made people uncomfortable, but I am glad that I did. We have a problem in this country with too many people taking the easy way out and voting based on superficial things. The way I vote is not easy and takes some time, but I am personally invested in the decision and I always feel good about voting, even if I misjudge a politician. Blind voting is possibly worse for the democratic process than doing nothing at all because it's just bad citizenship. If I can influence people to think about their decisions than I am doing something worthwhile.


The Letter Writer