Opinion | Morgan Liddick: The power and pitfalls of statistics
On Your Right
The Consumer Federation of America says that the Trump administration’s plans to roll back vehicle fuel efficiency (CAFÉ) standards is a “$2 trillion mistake,” basing the figure on the $1.2 trillion Americans have “saved” because of the standards since 1975, plus the $800 billion in economic growth caused by “energy efficient technologies.” Their statement, produced this November, is a 300-odd page mishmash of figures, estimates, tables, charts, polling data and guesswork.
It is also a perfect illustration of why British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli categorized three kinds of prevarication, in descending order as: 1) lies; 2) damned lies; and, 3) statistics.
Today we seem mesmerized by statistics, which is a shame. Properly used, they can bring clarity to topics plagued by an overload of information, often of different types and sometimes with ambiguous or even conflicting details. These days, however, they are used in all sorts of arguments, in ways legitimate and not. They lend the appearance of solidity to otherwise vaporous conclusions: “The Affordable Care Act will save the average family over $2,500 a year.” Or “One in four female college students has been sexually assaulted.” They give a patina of scientific authority to the wildest speculation: “Trump’s tax cuts will expand Federal debt $1.5 trillion over ten years.” And they do many other sorts of mischief.
Dealing with statistics on political topics is daunting. Often the subject is emotionally charged, so painstaking analysis is necessary, even of the source. Consider the Consumer Federation of America.
Originally created to advocate before Congress and federal regulators, the CFA was a creature of people with previous history as advocates in labor unions, electricity co-operatives, public utility districts and consumer cooperatives. By the 21st century these had been joined by “social justice warriors” and other, similar types. The CFA embraces net neutrality, sees banking as essentially predatory, calls for curbs on intellectual property rights, regards credit cards as a device to raise individual debt, demands agricultural subsidies that decrease food prices to consumers and encourages refocusing farm programs to favor small family farmers – which will increase food prices. Re-read that last carefully to plumb the intellectual shallows in which the organization splashes about.
The data on which CFA bases their fuel standards estimate is mostly sourced to organizations like the EPA, the Acadia Center/ENE, American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, the Massachusetts state government’s Affordable Access to Clean and Efficient Energy program and similar components of the Progressive environmentalist echo chamber. The literature is mostly prescriptive; that is, it begins with the desired conclusion and works backward to suggest steps that might create that end.
It is also sprinkled through with hope and blithe disregard for how wide swaths of the real world actually work. It is intimidatingly large, has lots of numbers and plenty of endnotes. So it’s a useful tool to support unproven and unproveable assertions.
It is an increasingly typical method of argument, stressing quantity over quality. Never mind that the thesis makes no sense to anyone who can think straight; look at all the numbers. Look at the citations! It has to be right. Right?
It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about how cutting regulations takes money out of the economy, increasing revenue balloons the Federal debt or giving taxpayers their money back is actually bad for them; there’s a river of numbers that can be tortured to prove each, and no end of unscrupulous number-crunchers to do the torturing.
What is lacking in cases like the CFA’s is not mathematical ability, but good faith. Working backward from the desired conclusion may have its place in a theoretical discussion of politics, but it is misleading when trying to determine what works best among real people. In the latter case one must be willing to pay close attention to human behavior, and to fearlessly accept the results of observation.
But this is hard for those who know how they want the world to be, and reality be damned. It’s doubly difficult if they have invested years, perhaps decades, of effort to achieving their vision, no matter how unrealistic. So they continue to challenge common sense, in the forlorn hope that their fellow citizens will simply grow weary of argument and throw up their hands.
But common sense still has its innings ahead and, despite the best efforts of modern education, it has a good nose for charlatanism. Which makes it a bad season for arguing that the government knows better than manufacturers how to innovate responsibly and profitably, and better than most people about how to spend money on energy.
Among other things.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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