Fake factoids, false narratives

A persistent source of frustration in politics is the citation of misleading statistics and shoddy research studies to reinforce dubious ideological narratives. Those doing the citing either know what they're doing and are therefore dishonest, or don't know and are therefore staggeringly dumb (or at least easily fooled and poorly read).

Among the myths (or at best, half-truths) that continue to stagger about like zombies on The Walking Dead.

• That 97 percent of "climate scientists" support the theory of man-made global warming.

Actually, we don't know what the real percentage is and probably don't have a methodologically sound way of finding out (for that matter, and crucial to the debate, we don't yet have a reliable methodology for measuring global temperatures or estimating past or future ones, either).

The 97 percent claim stems from questionable interpretation of the results of a two-question survey conducted by a University of Illinois graduate student and her adviser back in 2009. The sample size used in the survey was tiny, the number of those who responded only a small minority of that small sample, and the number among those respondents who had actually done any kind of research on climate smaller still (thus a minority of a minority of a minority).

Despite its shaky provenance, the 97 percent claim has been invoked as a form of appeal to authority to silence global warming skeptics ever since.

• That our banking system suffers from "institutional racism" because blacks are refused loans more frequently than whites.

This claim can be traced to the influence of a shoddy 1992 study conducted by researchers for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which concluded that black applicants with comparable incomes were turned down for mortgage loans far more often than white applicants.

Alas, what that Boston Fed study inexplicably failed to do was take into account factors other than income--debt levels, credit ratings, and size of loan requests, in particular--which banks necessarily consider and which, when factored in, effectively explained the discrepancies. Indeed, by the 1992 Fed study logic, banks routinely discriminate in favor of Asians against whites.

But the damage was still done when, after overly credulous media reporting of the Fed's study, Bill Clinton's administration put pressure on banks to further loosen mortgage lending policies, particularly to minorities.

The housing bubble and the 2008 financial crisis followed in train.

• That one in five female college students has been the victim of rape or attempted rape.

This shocking (if true) claim started the whole "campus rape epidemic" frenzy, but dates to a widely debunked 2007 survey of women at just two universities who were awarded a $10 Amazon gift certificate in return for answering a few sloppily phrased questions online.

There isn't a sexual assault crisis on our campuses, and it can be made to look like there is only if we play fast and loose with the definition of sexual assault and jigger the statistics accordingly (as that 2007 survey did).

• That women only earn 78 percent of the wages of men, and therefore continue to be victims of pervasive sexism in the workplace.

In reality, the male-female earnings gap has been shown to almost entirely disappear once you compare men and women doing the same work, in the same professions, with comparable work experience and educational credentials, which the 78 percent statistic doesn't reflect.

But why let facts get in the way of all those fun women's marches and strikes?

• That our nation's police are racist because they fatally shoot young black males at a higher rate than other groups.

The fact that young black males are fatally shot by police at disproportionate rates ceases to alarm (or, actually, alarms in a completely different way) when you take into account that young black males also commit a staggeringly higher percentage of our nation's violent crimes, with their victims usually other young black males.

• That there is no "Ferguson effect" because violent-crime rates are lower today than they were in the 1990s.

Violent-crime rates are indeed lower, after a hard-achieved but persistent decline over the past two decades.

But the most recent data also suggests that that decline has been reversed since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014--murder rates rose by 11 percent in 2015 according to FBI data and by another 13 percent in 2016, according to the respected Brennan Center (the 2016 FBI data has yet to be released). That amounts to a staggering 25 percent increase in murders in just two years.

Those who claim there is no "Ferguson effect" deliberately mislead by comparing 2015 or 2016 crime rates to those in the early 1990s (when violent crime rates were reaching an historic peak), rather than from just three years ago, precisely those years during which the effects of Ferguson would have become noticeable.

But when you demonize the police and make their work more difficult, what reasonable person would expect otherwise?

Such "big lies" depend upon repetition and gullibility and a complicit mass media to work. And there are always demagogues with ideological agendas propelling them.


Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 03/20/2017

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