Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

image of a person with thinking cap

One part of political debate I like is using images to make a point. Whether it is a chart or a quote image, these graphics hold on to the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. They are also easy to share in social media. However one still needs to be careful one isn’t sharing inaccurate information. Don’t post or share any graphic unless you can confirm the accuracy of the information.

Earlier this year this chart was making the rounds of the blogs I read:

image of wrong deficit chart

The chart’s original source was US House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s Flickr page. Turns out the percentages displayed were wrong.

Politifact did a check on the chart when it first showed up and found the percentages were off. Although President Obama still had a lower increase in the deficit compared to George W Bush, Bush’s increase wasn’t as severe and Obama’s wasn’t as small.

A friend of mine did another chart using more accurate numbers and math:

image of correct deficit increases

The issue of who had the biggest rise in the deficit is debatable but that is for another post. However Politifact’s other observations about Pelosi’s chart are not good conclusions. They gave the original chart “pants on fire” when in fact it was partly true. President Bush started with a budget surplus and added $800 billion to the deficit by the time he left office in 2009. The point of the chart was showing which President had added the most to the deficit and Obama is better than W no matter what information you use to measure it.

Statistics is one of those data points that can be misleading or flat wrong for all kind of reasons. They can be hard to pin down but quote images are pretty easy to verify.

This quote attributed to TV host Lawrence O’Donnell is making the rounds:

image of quote Lawrence O'Donnell wrote for TV show

What did liberals do that was so offensive to the Republican Party? I’ll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act.

What did Conservatives do? They opposed them on every one of those things, every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, ‘Liberal,’ as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won’t work, because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor.

Written By Lawrence O’Donnell Jr.

Yes O’Donnell did write the words – most of them. It was used in an episode of “The West Wing” in 2005. In the scene, a live debate, the Democratic character Matthew Santos spoke the words but it was only about liberals and conservatives – not Democrats and Republicans specifically. Also a refresh on history will show that Liberals did help in those items – also known as progressive ideas but Democrats at the time supported segregation and Republicans got African-Americans the right to vote at the end of the Civil War. In 2012, it is obviously clear that most Democrats support an explicit liberal agenda and Republicans are far more conservative including wanting to return America to the 1850’s when “women and African-Americans knew their place”.

When I see these quote images what I like to do is put the person’s name and a line or two from the quote in a search engine to see where it comes up. The following quote from Senator Bernie Sanders is true because his office posted a video of him saying the words:

image of Senator Bernie Sanders quote

“This country does in fact have a serious deficit problem. But the reality is that the deficit was caused by two wars — unpaid for. It was caused by huge tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country. It was cause by a recession as a result of the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior on Wall Street. And if those are the causes of this deficit, I will be damned if we’re going to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick, the children, and the poor. That’s wrong.” — Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) 11/18/2011

The only quibble is the words were spoken on 11/17/2011 but the rest is correct.

Just remember, before tweeting or posting that quote or chart, try to verify the accuracy. 

2 Replies to “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics”

  1. Did you happen to catch Maddow's last couple of shows? She's been calling into question the assumption that PolitiFact is a competent fact-checker. Made me think I may have been mistaken to use them in the past, as some of their conclusions (like the one you mention here) seem to be without basis. 

    1. I haven't watched them but I did read about them. A conservative friend of mine posted the PolitiFact article about that debt chart and a liberal friend did the corrected chart independent of PolitiFact. Looks like I'll have to treat them like I did HuffPost and stop using their information and stop linking to them 

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