Written by Paul Penner Tuesday, 21 April 2009 13:31
“…statistics will always lie.” —David Simon, producer of “The Wire” on HBO.
Perhaps that quote isn’t shocking news to anyone these days, even though we may disagree with it, because we pretend to be idealists at heart.
Whether the topic is about student test scores or how many wealthy millionaire farmers are receiving farm subsidies, the statistics can be interpreted, twisted or reported in a manner that can support any hypothesis that we want to believe or want to convince other people that our cause is right.
In last week’s interview with David Simon, Bill Moyers discusses the difficulty a journalist encounters when writing about complex issues of poverty and drugs in America.
Simon responds, “One of the problems with journalism that I’ve found—that the ‘The Wire’ obviously didn’t have because we got to tell the story we wanted to tell—but one of the problems with journalism was, they really—even the highest ambition of the people at my newspaper, was to bite off a small morsel of the actual problem. Surround one little thing. You know, lead-paint poisoning. We’re going to do a series of articles about lead-paint poisoning and show you how bad lead-paint poisoning is. And maybe we’ll get a law passed. And we’ll write the react to our stories. And then we’ll submit it for a prize. And that was the highest ambition of people who were regarded as very good journalists.”
MOYERS: “Is it because we can’t go where the imagination can take us? We are tethered to the facts?”
SIMON: “Well, and facts—one of the themes of ‘The Wire’ really was that statistics will always lie. I mean, statistics can be made to say anything.”
MOYERS: “Yes, one of my favorite scenes, in Season Four, we get to see the struggling public school system in Baltimore through the eyes of a former cop who’s become a schoolteacher. In this telling scene, he realizes that state testing in the schools is little more than a trick he learned on the police force. It’s called ‘juking the stats.’”
In the episode of “The Wire” that Moyers and Simon refer to, the former cop realizes that educating students and raising their skills to an acceptable level of achievement is not the goal, but rather creating the illusion of achievement to prove they are doing their job.
“Juking the stats” is a new term for me. Unfortunately, this phrase acknowledges a behavior that allegedly goes on inside public and private institutions and those in charge would not want the public to be aware of the practice. It suggests intent to create an environment where the facts will always support the mission of the institution.
Education is not the only arena where juking the stats occurs. The recent recession is an ongoing and painful reminder that facts lie.
Simon responds to Moyers: “You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is. And this comes down to Wall Street. I mean, our entire economic structure fell behind the idea that these mortgage-based securities were actually valuable. And they had absolutely no value. They were toxic. And yet, they were being traded and being hurled about, because somebody could make some short-term profit.”
Perhaps that’s a cynical perspective and too cynical for some people. By his admission, Simon’s experience as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun and producer of the HBO series “The Wire” began as an idealist and wound up becoming a hard-core cynic.
Even so, his experience counts for something. At the very least, it alerts the audience to the games people play, whether they work as civil servants, in educational institutions or private business.
There’s nothing wrong when we express a bit of cynicism when facts are used to support an argument. There may be legitimate reasons why people would rather hide an objective interpretation of the facts.
However, there are less than honorable reasons why people are motivated to distort the facts, reasons like greed that leads to bribery or other illegal behavior.
The cynic asks for additional evidence that supports the facts as reported. The cynic believes the facts rarely are as they appear on paper and are often justified by their lack of confidence in the interpretation of the data.
Last Sunday night, PBS aired portions of a seminar sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Policy. National Intelligence Council chairman Thomas Fingar discussed the decision-making process while preparing intelligence briefings for the president of the United States.
Fingar’s criteria require the inclusion of a selected group of experts within the field of discussion, analyzing each contributor’s conclusion and compiling the range of opinions from which they determined the degree of agreement among the contributors.
A wide range of opinions, though based on the same data, indicated a low level of satisfaction and confidence that any solution is the best choice. Meaning, no decisive decision could be relied upon as the correct one to recommend to the president.
In simple terms and at the risk of repeating the obvious, as David Simon says, “facts will always lie.”
The challenge for reader, journalist and columnist alike is to exercise extreme caution when reading, interpreting the facts and making decisions that have far-reaching implications into the future.