Statistics Aren’t Lies…Aren’t They?

By Joy Phillips

As you may or may not know, 2013 marks the celebration of the International Year of Statistics, coined “Statistics2013” – a celebration to increase public awareness of the power and impact of statistics on all aspects of society. With that said, I could not help but bring to memory the phrase “Lies, d***** lies, and statistics,” which is claimed to have originated in England in the 19th century, but made popular in America by Mark Twain in the 20th century. The phrase describes the persuasive power of numbers to support an argument. But wait: is it fair to refer to statistics as the highest form of lying under any circumstance?

First, let’s define statistics.  In Gerald Hahn and Necip Doganaksoy’s book A Career in Statistics: Beyond the Numbers, the definitions include these parts:

  1. The science of learning from or making sense out of data;
  2. The theory and methods of extracting information from observational data; and
  3. The art of telling a story with numerical data.

What grabs my attention is that statistics is defined as both a science and an art. Can statistics be both? Is this the source of confusion that leads ultimately to some people attributing statistics to all lies? For statistics to be a science, it must follow some standard and proven methodology to arrive at its conclusions.  For it to be an art, it must lend itself to some notion of manual skill, intellectual manipulation, or personal expression. My belief is that while statistics can be both a science and an art, it cannot be both at the same time.  The data is generated first using a scientific process (can be as simple as counting), then it can become an art when it is subjected to human interpretation. Human interpretation can be regarded as a lie only if others know the truth lies elsewhere, and the person giving the interpretation is aware of that.

Case in point: For the District of Columbia, the U.S. Census Bureau has multiple 2010 population numbers: 601,723 (Census 2010); 604,453 (American Community Survey [ACS] 2010 1-year data); and 604,912 (2010 population estimate). Which one is the true population number? The decennial Census, last held in 2010, is a count of the population at a specific point in time. ACS 1-year data is a sample of the population over a twelve-month period from January to December. The population estimate for a particular year is based on administrative data such as births, deaths and migration. The average person will not know the intricacies of the Census Bureau’s methodology and may be forced to conclude that none of these numbers are correct or that they are all wrong (or a lie). Scientifically, it can be argued that each is correct based on the method applied. Artfully, each number is subject to its own interpretation based on the information known or assumed in its derivation.

From my viewpoint, statistical interpretation is such that regardless of the issue or argument, people usually find a number that can be used to support it or they find another number that they believe should be used instead. Does this mean that statistics is a lie? Certainly not! However, for some, the jury is still out. Where do you stand?

Joy Phillips is the Associate Director of the State Data Center, OP

Biking… a dilemma

By Malaika Abernathy

Quoinett Warrick on bike

OP staffer Quoinett Warrick on Capital Bikeshare

If only biking in style was this easy.

As an urban planner in the District, I wholeheartedly embrace a walkable and bikeable model of urban life.  I cheer as Walk Scores for the District’s emerging neighborhoods exponentially increase as bike amenities and services are introduced.  I applaud our local pioneers who actually walk the talk by biking not only to work, but also to leisurely run errands and meet up with friends.  I even smile with amazement when I see my boss, OP Director Harriet Tregoning, stepping into a meeting in upper NW with helmet and bike in tow (yes, I’ve actually witnessed her biking from our office in SW to points WAY north in the District!). So as I get amped to begin my own biking soliloquy, somehow I get stuck at the door looking for my car keys instead. I know, I’m a hypocrite… but a well meaning one.

The reality for me is far deeper than just biking itself. It’s the after effects of biking that leave me perplexed.  The sweating, the change of clothes and the showering at work all require a level of dedication I’m simply not interested in. For those of us who remotely care about maintaining a business professional appearance during the day, I ask you, how do you do it?

Everyone has their own unique routine. I see the towels in the office shower air drying. I pass the bikers early in the AM with all their biking accoutrements from cute helmets to versatile biking shoes. Oh and the infamous rolled up pant leg, with the innovative Velcro fastener to secure it. And then I think, I can do this!  

DDOT staffer Monica Hernandez on Capital Bikeshare

DDOT staffer Monica Hernandez on Capital Bikeshare

 The last bike-to-work occasion I attempted required a fairly large back pack of necessities… shower gear, towel, deodorant, make-up and all other trinkets and essentials necessary to be work appropriate.  

Somehow the list of essentials grew, and my knap sack quickly grew to the size of a small mountain.  So with everything in tow, I managed to mount the bike without tipping over. Surprisingly, I arrived to work in about 20 minutes, but was completely drenched. On my way up to the shower, I noticed a colleague trekking behind me with not an ounce of perspiration visible. Off he went into the office as if he had just stepped out of a biking magazine.  Then I catch a glimpse of my reflection and realize I’m definitely the nerdiest and sweatiest biker chick ever. Not a title I’d like to carry stepping into the office.  And then I think, if this is embracing a bikable model of urban life, then I’d rather just cheer my peers on. Hip Hip Hooray, for those of you that have figured it out. Hip Hip Hooray.