Beware! Figures Are Often Manipulated To Bury The Truth

by: Bruce Wilds

Years ago, I picked up an interesting book at a flea market that gave an eye-opening tour through the twists and turns of math abuse and innumeracy. The book, "200% of Nothing," by A. K. Dewney, delves into how percentage pumping and irrational ratios can be used to make and reinforce a point that has little validity. Sadly, this practice has become far too common in modern society. Our ability to communicate faster over the years has resulted in more information being showered down upon us, and as a result, facts are seldom checked. This has lead to the tongue-in-cheek comment, "If you saw it on the Internet, it has to be true." In fact, with all the fake news that bombards us on a daily basis, nothing could be further from the truth. With this in mind, it is important we make a solid effort to understand this crucial area of our lives.

The book takes a delightfully witty excursion into how figures are manipulated to sway our opinions and sheds light on the fact that truth can quickly be buried by those who choose to mislead us. A favorite quote of mine that has been attributed to no less than five people goes as follows: "There are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies, and statistics." These abuses are committed and spread by institutions and organizations devoted to skimming and scamming the public, changing opinion, or promoting their goods and agendas. Often, they ice the cake by topping off their presentation with beautiful charts and graphs skewed in scale adding to the illusion of truth.

Few People Can Internalize Large Numbers

To my delight, the book makes a point and draws attention to the damage we suffer from not being aware of this manipulation. It also focuses on how many people fail to internalize large numbers or, when faced with them, become numb to their size and are unable to relate to them. This has become the bane of our relationship with Washington and our government. Politicians pass into law and spend massive and ungodly sums of money with very little idea of what they are doing. In today's world, where people are put in positions to make decisions over what to do with large sums of money, innumeracy is an even greater danger than illiteracy. It could be argued that it is even far more common now that reading material is available everywhere. Needless to say, the results of not understanding and being able to grasp the reality of the cost and how enormous these programs are can be devastating for those forced to pay for them.

This means that far more attention must be paid to this very important subject in school. For us to intelligently shape our future, we must have a sound and basic understanding of numbers, what they represent, and how to relate to them. When math is joined with other disciplines and used in forming projections and predictions, if the math is built on any type of false premise, it undermines the whole endeavor. An inability to understand the rules of percentages, ratios, statistics and basic math logic is highlighted by the book's author using the rather harmless ad for a light bulb that claims you can save up to 200% of energy cost. He points out the fact is it is impossible to save over 100% of anything.

Footnote: Your comments are welcome and encouraged. If you have time, check out the archives for another post that may be of interest to you. The post looks at our deficit spending and is an eye-opener.