February 22, 2012
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