OP-ED | Giving Statistics A Bad Name
When the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced last week that 235,000 new jobs were added in February, the first full month of Donald Trump’s presidency, the response from the White House was predictable.
‘‘Great news for American workers: economy added 235,000 new jobs, unemployment rate drops to 4.7 percent in first report for @POTUS Trump,’’ tweeted Press Secretary Sean Spicer. ‘‘Not a bad way to start day 50 of this Administration.”
Quite a contrast from Trump’s assessment of similar employment statistics while on the campaign trail. ‘‘Don’t believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment,” said then-candidate Trump before the New Hampshire primary. “The number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35.”
In Connecticut, meanwhile, last week’s report on its own employment numbers was not so rosy.
“In 2016, Connecticut lost 200 jobs, according to revised numbers released Friday by the Connecticut Labor Department,” according to CT News Junkie. “It had been expected that Connecticut would add about 12,000 jobs in 2016, which means the economy is even weaker than economists initially thought.”
Not to be deterred, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy saw a silver lining in the dark economic cloud, noting that “the state has recovered about 80,000 jobs since the end of the Great Recession.”
The lesson for politicians? When the numbers look good for you, take credit. When they don’t, deflect attention. Or, as Mark Twain said (or didn’t), paraphrasing (or not) British politician Benjamin Disraeli, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Put another way, anybody can “juke the stats” any way he wants to prove his point or promote his cause. Consequently, statistics have become the Rodney Dangerfield of public discourse — they don’t get no respect. And that’s unfortunate because it’s often not the statistics themselves at fault; it’s the misleading way politicians frame them that gives statistics a bad name.
Trump taking credit for February’s jobs numbers after disavowing the very same numbers before becoming president is a prime example of such manipulation.
“Even if the economy does start to change direction in coming months, it’s unlikely Trump or his policies will be the primary cause,” explained Ben Casselman of FiveThirtyEight, a website devoted to opinion polling and analytics. “Presidents in any case have little control over the economy, especially in the short-term. The government can (probably) help ease the impact of a recession, and bad policies can (definitely) slow down growth. And presidential policies on things like education, infrastructure, and tax policy can have long-term effects, for good or ill. But presidents have little influence over the month-to-month ups and downs of hiring or inflation.”
It’s called the “fallacy of correlation” or “false cause.” Since one event closely follows another, the first is said to cause the second. Trump taking credit for the improved employment numbers is just one of many laughable examples. Here’s another, created by the website Spurious Media:
The chart clearly shows that whenever Nicholas Cage appears in movies, the number of swimming pool accidents increases. Makes perfect sense, right? Of course not.
Beware the politician or pundit, therefore, who attaches undue significance to statistics. As a teacher, I’m particularly concerned about matching teacher competence with students’ standardized test scores. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are now granted more latitude in how they measure teacher performance. In Connecticut, where individual districts have designed their own evaluation models within the state’s template, that could result in even more reliance on standardized test scores.
Norwich Schools Superintendent Abby Dolliver, for instance, implemented a plan last year that increased “the mandated number of students at each grade level who must meet the ‘proficient’ benchmark on standardized tests from 75 percent to 85 percent.”
As a high school English teacher with five classes in four different subjects with more than 100 total students, I wonder: How does that work? Would the only standardized test administered in high school — the SAT in 11th grade — reveal my actual effectiveness as a classroom teacher?
Once again, it’s a fallacy of correlation. If only I had the same platform as Donald Trump or Dannel P. Malloy to couch “my results” in crafty, self-serving language.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.