how statistics lie

There’s an old episode of the West Wing in which a pollster is trying to get the President to sign onto a measure that would ban flag-burning. It’s an easy way to gain a few votes, the pollster said. A constitutional amendment to ban flag burning is never going to happen, so what’s the harm? It shows the POTUS to be a patriotic American. Is there anything wrong with that?

The president’s staff arranges for Bartlet to sit through various town hall meetings with people hectoring him over the issue. Finally he asks, “Is there an epidemic of flag-burning I don’t know about?” and walks out.

Later, a couple of staff people are talking about the polls in which a majority of Americans support a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag-burning. A cool-headed pollster points out the flaw: that figure may be true, but the percentage of people who rate that issue as important or very important is low. Very low. A simple yes-or-no question is not going to capture the intensity of the opinion.

I’ve been thinking about this since the controversy over Park 51 has begun.

Apparently, around 70% of Americans think that the community center and mosque shouldn’t be built so close to Ground Zero. Let’s set aside whether constitutionally protected actions should be subject to the will of popular opinion. (Here’s a thought: No.) What I haven’t seen is anything about the intensity of that 70%. People are certainly pontificating about it in the media and on the Internet, and unfortunately, it’s the panderers and bigots who seem to be loudest. And those folks keep trumpeting the 70% figure, as if every one of that 70% is as deeply offended as they are. I would be willing to bet good money that they aren’t.

My guess is that if you take out the members of Shoutytown, and the people who have been convinced by them that this is a “victory mosque” or that all Muslims are evil, that much of the opposition is somewhere in the universe of “I know there’s no rational reason why this should bother me, but I have to admit it does. 9/11 is such a profound psychic wound for our nation that we need to proceed with utmost caution. If another site could be found that wouldn’t jeopardize the project’s mission, I would favor it. But if this is the location, eh, the world will go on.”

The only thing I have found that even comes close to addressing this is a poll of New Yorkers. A majority favor another site, AND a majority agree that the Cordoba folks have a right to build there. This suggests to me that people are able to separate their personal feelings about the project from whether it should be allowed to continue.

Absent some nuance, we will continue to have political figures exploiting this for cheap electoral gain and using this as a litmus test to show who’s more patriotic and reverent toward the events of 9/11.

Meanwhile, some more people starved to death in flood-ravaged Pakistan today.

Photo: Off-track betting; one of the many businesses located near Ground Zero. More here.


17 thoughts on “how statistics lie

  1. lukeluke says:

    Yes, this is such a crucial distinction.

    I don’t remember the exact quote, but many moons ago I remember hearing a stat thrown around by people (mainly atheists) about how something like 40% of Americans consider themselves Fundamentalists or that the Bible is the one true word or something like that. Anyway, the people were throwing it out there to show how bad things are but I always remember thinking “I dunno, I know several people who might answer that question with a “yes” but it doesn’t mean that they are ignorant, simple minded, non critical thinkers.

    The way people answer those questions on polls, captures how they feel at that moment, based on how the question is asked.

    It’s like when people said they wouldn’t vote for Obama because they were Hillary supports (remember those days?). I am sure that some of them didn’t vote for Obama after all, but when I saw stats saying how many people “wouldn’t vote for him”, I kept thinking “well we will see how they vote when it really gets down to a real decision vs simply stating an opinion”.

  2. MaryAnn says:

    I should add, in case it hasn’t been clear from my tweets and FB updates over the last week πŸ™‚ that I am not in the 70%. I don’t have any issues with it being built as currently proposed. I just wanted to make the argument that many folks who ARE in the 70% probably don’t feel all that strongly about it, and will get used to it.

  3. Jeremy says:

    The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.

    America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.

    Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.

    George W. Bush
    September 17, 2001

  4. Thanks, Dana. (And thanks, Jeremy — wish W. would come out and remind us of similar again. He could be a great help on Cordoba House and immigration.)

    Re the intensity thing, I found it interesting to learn (1) that there are already two mosques w/in two blocks of the site and (2) of all the many, let’s say, “business which don’t represent the best of the US” within 2 blocks too including strip clubs, pawn dealers, and check cashers.

  5. NotShyChiRev says:


    Hey, here’s an idea. Instead of some cheap soundbite issue that panders to xenophobia, homophobia, or NameYourOwnPhobia, let’s let the litmus test be who has the best plan for lifting people out of poverty and restoring the health of the middle class, the engine that drives our economy and our future as an educated, entrepreneurial, compassionate nation.

  6. Jerrod B. Lowry says:

    First, LOVE WEST WING! Any West Wing reference instantly gets my attention!

    Second, just a fantastic point!

    Hope you don’t mind if I share your blog with my congregation.

  7. Mamala says:

    Amen to all of this that you’ve written, MaryAnn. I’m very passionate about this topic, as anyone who has friended me on FB knows.

  8. jillsusan says:

    and I’m still waiting for the definitive answer to my question:

    If 2 blocks is too close to the WTC site to build a mosque, what isn’t too close? 3 blocks, 4 blocks, 2 miles, 2000 miles? What is the magic number?

  9. Jan says:

    Thanks for speaking out on an issue that is in the forefront of media this week, Mary Ann. The region in which I currently reside has a rather closed-mindedness regarding matters of diversity, of most any sort. I bit my tongue all thru worship service last week when the idea of building of said-mosque was belittled from the pulpit.

  10. MaryAnn says:

    I’m preaching on this topic tomorrow… say a prayer for me everyone πŸ™‚

  11. Andy says:

    I’m also fascinated that no one seemed to mind either the Burlington Coat Factory store (the space the proposed community center would use) or the strip clubs on the supposedly “hallowed ground” around the site.

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