Lying with Statistics

To avoid being fooled by statistics requires using the knowledge we already possess. A lost art? I struggle with this constantly.

To print data claiming that: Shanghai and Singapore have a better educated workforce than the USA when they certainly must realize that (1)  neither is a country; and (2) to ignore the fact that China’s low-income workforce are treated as part-time immigrants  in Shanghai, whose children are not allowed to attend their schools and/or in most cases (including Singapore)  live beyond these city’s boundaries, means either purposely misusing data or not using one’s own knowledge. Not to mention the naiveté of accepting any data’s reliability when dealing with a totalitarian regime. These are simple facts that any journalist reporting on these statistics should know. As we gentrify the remaining sections of Manhattan where low-income people of color still reside, we might enter Manhattan in the world’s test score rankings. In fact, we have several states that would rank pretty high up if we decided to call them separate nations, much less excluded the scores of “immigrants.”  It’s bad enough when they—the US media-—take US test score data at face value, much less accepting without question the data from nations we know often lie to us and their own people.

Our dilemma is far more serious than upgrading our math courses in order to better compete with Asia. Where they outdo us is not in having enough highly skilled workers but in low paid ones. Maybe we’ll be more successful competitors if we continue to lower our wage scales to match theirs?  (Which requires getting rid of unions.) If that’s the plan, it’s one that we haven’t been consulted about.

Or, we might insist that all schools math programs give more attention to understanding data (statistics, probability, et al) and less attention to calculus.  A calculus driven math course of study is not only irrelevant to the jobs of the past and future, but our focus directs attention away from precisely the mathematical skills and understanding our economy and citizenship actually need. It leads to many students’ failure to graduate.  What disturbs me most is that few of us were prepared for a world in which understanding how millions and billions differ matters—other than adding zeros, or what the odds are for winning the lottery.  It’s this everyday kind of math illiteracy that we have ignored for far too long in pursuit of a goal that best serves elite interests—if even theirs.  (And I am not anti-calculus! Just first things first.)

Never mind. We seem stuck with a “ruling class” media determined to focus on every weakness they can locate, except their own. Thus the lack of mathematical knowledge found among average Americans becomes more significant than their own failure to grapple with—and make sense of—the data they are fed, most particularly how they could have “missed” the data that led, in hindsight, to explaining the 2008 crash.

6 Responses

  1. For more information see website:

  2. Great article, but who needs to separate Manhattan to get high test scores. All one has to do is look at the micro school districts of NYC suburbs that are segregated y race and class. Compare my hometown, affluent Port Washington, with its neighbor Roosevelt or Rockland County’s Clarkstown to East Ramapo. Small school districts have been a historic method to prevent revenue sharing between wealthy and poor communities. They also make for good test scores for the former.

  3. For exactly the reasons you state, for the last few years I’ve been having my students at Antioch in my Review of Educational Research class engage with Gerry Bracey’s work, especially his Statistically Snookered book. What I have seen arise out of this one class, time and time again, are cadres of teachers and master’s students who come in the door believing Waiting for Superman, anything put out by the Gates Foundation, or other claims about the deficiencies of America’s teachers and schools in a global perspective and who then walk out able to deconstruct all these arguments and expose them for a variety of fallacies and attempts to manufacture their consent to an ideological view of what counts as education, science, and being a quality educator/educand. They interrogate value-added rhetorics and expose flimsy appeals to “research-based” findings as made even recently on the Common Core website and its various promotional pieces. The point here being, not that it is because of my exceptional students or my own teaching that we have this success, but because the course reveals (and Bracey’s work chronicles) how clear it is that the emperors wear little to no clothing here everytime the statistics are trotted out.

    Thus, in my taught opinion, this is a major Achilles heel that progressives and other left educators should explore widely and tactically. The opposition seeds intellectual ground here with almost nary a whimper…

    • We are going into a meeting tomorrow where our school board’s leader of the office of statistics is going to come to ” explain” to us clueless parents how the passing percentages were determined. Fortunately, many of us had statistics and know it’s all set up to fail kids and schools and teachers. The parents in the room refused to ratify school improvement plan because we knew the percentages were not only unrealistic, they were insane. Apparently, this shook up the powers that be so we are getting their guy who doesn’t even have a degree in statistics or assessment. It will be interesting to see them be schooled by educated parents who are. And we told our daughter, who is on the calculus track, that she will take statistics as it will be the most useful math class she will take. We aren’t raising any fools.

  4. One minor quibble….

    Singapore IS a country; it’s actually called the Republic of Singapore.

    I know because I lived there for two years in the mid 70s, and have an adult daughter working as an ex pat there now….

    it’s a sovereign city-state…. with its own independent government, economy, currency, military (army, navy AND air force), educational system, health care system, some industry, some agriculture …

    it’s actually quite a powerhouse…

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