Are Statistics Accurate? Where Do Statisticians Get Their Data?

The great Mark Twain as well as many other famous people didn’t put much stock in statistics and for good reason; most are biased.

“An unsophisticated forecaster uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts - for support rather than for illumination.”
Andrew Lang

“Lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Mark Twain

“Definition of Statistics: The science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures. “

Evan Esar


Polls

During Sociology class we were sent out to get different test results from the public. Going to the mall or around campus with clipboard in hand we’d ask general questions in different ways to see what the answers would be.

You can ask a person, “Do you like peanut butter?” If you ask with a big smile on your face, even licking your lips and an upward lift to your voice at the end of the sentence you are apt to get more positive answers.

If you asked the same question frowning or grimacing with a downward tone at the end of your sentence you will get more negative answers. Someone who would normally tell you they don’t like peanut butter would tell you, “It’s okay,” if they see you licking your lips and appearing to be a lover of the spread. They don’t want to hurt your feelings since you clearly love peanut butter so you are apt to get more positive results.

People are social creatures and heavily influenced by our peers more than you realize.

It’s like the old joke where the little boy goes up to a house and says, “You don’t want to buy any candy do you?” Of course the boy doesn’t sell many boxes.

If the person giving the poll is against a measure or subject the results will be negative. If the person giving the poll is enthusiastic about the data they are gathering, the results will be as well.



The introduction speech has a lot to do with the answers the interviewer will get.

This is why if a white man is asking questions about another male race and he wants the results to be negative, it most definitely will be. I’m not picking on white guys; this could be true of any person anywhere in the world. I’m simply using this analogy because most poll takers here in America are Caucasian males. I bet you didn’t know that.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again and it is why I take polls with a grain of salt. If someone tells me that statistically more Asian American men are this or that unless an Asian American man has actually given the poll I’m not going to believe the results. And you know what? Even if an Asian American guy asked all of the questions I still will be skeptical unless I know him and was present during part of the polls because if he’s been led to believe the negative questions on his poll it can also affect the results.

Do you see how this can be greatly swayed?

If you tell people something over and over again, eventually they start to believe it even if it isn’t true.


Studies

The first thing you have to realize is that most people doing studies have an agenda. They have a case they are trying to prove, so naturally they are going to look for evidence to back up their beliefs.

They don’t want to include information that proves them wrong. What good would that do?

People see what they want to see. Look at witnesses at a crime scene. Each person sees something totally different. The investigators have to look for the similarities in descriptions and information each interviewed person gives. To a tall guy the perpetrator was average or short. To a short woman the criminal was tall.


Collection of data

Some statistics are simply gathering of information and you might think these cannot be changed or construed to give wrong information but it can.

If a politician wants you to believe the unemployment rate has improved he simply collects data agreeing with his opinion.

You can look at the recently unemployed which may have declined or you can look at the overall annual numbers or go back five years, which would include a greater number of people.

You can collect numbers only from the larger cities and overlook the rural areas. You can count households instead of people because as long as one of the spouses is working it will show an income even though the main bread winner may have been laid off. You can pick states with employment growth and leave out the ones losing jobs.

You see how statistics can be changed to suit the individual’s personal gain?


Should you believe any statistics?

I believe you should take the information into consideration but don’t believe it as the complete story.

The census bureau gives an educated estimate of the people in our country, their race, their marital status as well as a few other numbers but it is not the complete picture nor will it ever be. Why?

There are many people living in America that will never be counted. This nation is too large to track down every living soul to get their information. On top of that there are many who will not give accurate or true answers. You can tell them your kids are white when they are in fact African American or you can tell them you have three kids when you have six. Census takers are temporary workers and don’t have the time to make sure they see each and every person they list on their paperwork.

They do not ask to see marriage licenses, birth certificates, CDIB cards or green cards. And of course you have to consider most forms are mailed in and that information is not verified either.


The media influences our answers

Hollywood has a direct affect on what Americans and even other countries think about a certain issue, people or way of life.

Look at a few decades ago compared to today. Our parents had a different opinion about women in military, African Americans and the environment to mention a few. If they were asked what they thought about these topics in the 70’s the answers and polls would be quite different than the data that would be acquired today.

Television shows and movies make us who we are. That's scary. You don’t believe me look around at the women with breast implants and collagen injections in their lips to look like celebrities. Look at the men who walk around with facial stubble and shaved chests.

That’s not counting the views we hold and slang we use.

This is why it’s so detrimental for movies to have women as sex symbols, American Indian men as bad guys or senior citizens as unimportant. It’s what people come to expect from those individuals whether they realize it or not.

“Studies have shown that people will believe anything if you preface it with, ‘Studies have shown.’”

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Comments 25 comments

Shelly McRae profile image

Shelly McRae 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Great hub. I had never thought about how the poll taker's expression and body language could influence the answer. Very interesting hub. Thanks for sharing.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Shelly, I studied this stuff in college and it is amazing how the poll taker can make a difference in the end results of their data.


Stephanie Henkel profile image

Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

You bring up so many good points in your article! I worked for many years at a large university where student researchers helped faculty with their studies. One thing that many studies never mention is where the opinion polls were taken. It seemed to me then that there many polls taken on the college campus or local malls in the college town. These studies would definitely not include a true cross section of Americans. It's easy to believe what "Studies have shown..." but your point about how poll results can be swayed is very well taken! Voted up!


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Stephanie, I forgot that one. Where a poll is taken will also greatly decide the results. If you ask people at a health food store what they think about diet and exercise you will get a much different outcome than you would from customers at Wal-Mart.


Joan Whetzel 4 years ago

It really intersting to see how many different ways you can manipulate the results of surveys to get the result you want. And if you don't get the result you want, then it's just as easy to skew or slant the results, so that it appears that you get the results you wanted. Either way, it makes the whole science of statistics seem unreliable at best.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Yes it does, Joan, it is interesting how information can be totally changed.


ishwaryaa22 profile image

ishwaryaa22 4 years ago from Chennai, India

Your hub reminded me of my Economics and Statistics subjects in my two colleges. Yet you explained it in an entertaining and fun way that piqued my reading interest! You stated many facts correctly about collection of information from the population(not full)being done roughly.

Thanks for SHARING. Interesting. Voted up.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Thanks for reading, ishwaryaa. I don't think the general public are aware of how statistics are gathered. Hopefully I shed some light on the matter.


jenubouka 4 years ago

Great hub indeed, very interesting aspect on polls and statistics. It makes a lot of sense really, to me anyway. When I really sit and think about, now it drives me a little bit annoyed and angry, especially with the media based polls.


sandrabusby profile image

sandrabusby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

I'm a great believer in the point of this hub. I think it was Bertrand Russell who said (and I paraphrase) that the only things that could be measurred were the inessentials, like how many cars were produced in 2011 or how many peanuts can you put in a package. The really important things are not limited by factual information. Thanks for sharing. Sandra Busby


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Jenubouka, it's important to realize that we should take statistics with a grain of salt.

Sandra, there are a few bits of information we can depend on but most are biased. Thanks for reading.


pandula77 profile image

pandula77 4 years ago from Norway

It is a very interesting and mind tickling hub. It is true that bias can creep into many of our studies, specially the ones which lack scientific or theoretical foundation, but as researchers, people have to take as many precautions as possible to minimize the bias as much as possible.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Pandula, that would be great if it were so but unfortunately it is not.


PurvisBobbi44 profile image

PurvisBobbi44 4 years ago from Florida

Pamela,

I enjoyed reading your hub, and you made some valid points about the ones who ask the questions.

Sometimes, they are very funny, but I like talking so I answer their questions.

Thanks,

Bobbi


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Bobbi, surveys are interesting and I like to read some of the results.


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

I like the points you made here. One thing that bothers me about much of the research done at universities is that the research subjects being studied all fall into one age bracket. They're college-aged students, and generally, they're taking psychology, so if they don't participate in someone's research study, they have to write an extra term paper.

Then, the results are applied to the entire population. The actual statistical data might indicate the subjects were all between 18-30 years old. But what the public hears is that 'Studies show blah-blah-blah.'

This bothers me, since a 52-year-old man who has a career and a family man not respond the same way a 23-year-old frat kid will answer.

Voted up, useful, interesting and SHARED.


cclitgirl profile image

cclitgirl 4 years ago from Western NC

Did you know the 87.283% of all statistics are made up on the spot? hehe. Great thought-provoking hub. Well-laid out and great wording. Voted up and across.


shea duane profile image

shea duane 4 years ago from new jersey

very interesting... 4 out of 5 dentists surveyed recomment this hub!


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Marcy, that is true and one of the reasons we shouldn't completely believe everything we hear and read.

cclitgirl, I have heard that. :o)

Shea, I had forgotten about that one. Great for commercial value but not sure how true it is.


perassanna 4 years ago

nice hub pamela n red,

culture of the people too influence in the research. japan people don't like to say 'no'. if you ask them 'does this product taste good ?' they say 'yes', 'will you buy this ?' yes. then when you introduce the product only you will know the quality of the research.


Mark Pitts profile image

Mark Pitts 4 years ago from United States

This was very good. I too was a soc major, and stats was one of my fav's, but it takes a lot of work and focus to at best reduse bias so you have useful information. The manipulation of the numbers is evident in what information all political sides report and how they report it.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

You have written a hub anyone who follows the public debate should read. Good job.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Perassanna, I didn't know that about Japan. I've heard they are a very polite people so this makes sense.

Mark, I found it fascinating how you can sway poll results by how you present them. Sociology and psychology has always been interesting.

Kathleen, politics is another way society is manipulated. Certain television channels show their favorites in a more favorable light helping change people's decision about who they vote for.


Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 4 years ago from USA

I studied this briefly in school too, and have followed up with it on my own with books. I find it fascinating as well. Many times I hear the results of one study, and the next day it seems there is another study that gets completely different results. Did the opinion of all these people change so much in just one day? Sometimes it does, based on the slants you mentioned and what other stats they have heard from the media recently. Does America think the economy is getting better or worse? I am very aware that whatever stats that come out of politicians are likely to be skewed, and I have to get both sides before I make a decision.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Millionare Tips, the media is a necessary evil that makes us believe what it wants us to believe. It's hard to get unbiased information because every news story has put their own views into it. They can even push us to believe a person is guilty or innocent by the pictures they show us and the cut versions of phone conversations and interviews.

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