BOHANON & CUROTT: Listen to statistics, but dig deeper for the truth

February 2, 2018

Economic Analysis Cecil Bohanon and Nick CurottIt is often said: There are lies, damned lies and statistics. Another quip: Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure. As economists who routinely work with statistics, we can certainly attest to the accuracy of both sayings. What we find most frustrating, but also at times amusing, is how a statistic presented to buttress a particular political argument can, through a simple mathematical transformation, support an entirely different point of view.

Consider President Trump’s alleged gaffe about wanting more immigrants from Norway. Pundits pointed out that more Americans move to Norway than the other way around. According to a Chicago Tribune article, “in 2016 … only 1,114 Norwegians moved to the U.S., while 1,603 Americans moved to Norway.” Sen. Bernie Sanders was quick to jump on this statistic, claiming there was “good reason” for net out-migration from the United States: Norway’s universal health care system and generous social benefits that Sanders wants us to emulate.

But are raw numbers the relevant metric of migration? Norway had around 5.2 million people in 2016, while the United States had around 323 million people. That means about one in every 4,667 Norwegians came to live here, while about one in every 201,497 Americans left to live in Norway. By that metric, a Norwegian is 43 times more likely to come here than the other way around. We will let the reader decide which metric, raw numbers of out-migrants or out-migrants per total population in the home country, is most relevant to the discussion. But be warned: Statistical realities are not particularly ideological or partisan.

Consider the claim that “more white people are killed by the police than black people.” According to a Washington Post data site that keeps track of police homicides of civilians, 901 Americans were killed by the police in 2016. Of those, 466 were white and 233 were black, so the above-mentioned claim is accurate. However, the same data reveal that around 26 percent of those deaths were blacks, while blacks constitute 13 percent of the population. So, while the first statistic is correct, it is also true that blacks are more likely to die from a police homicide than whites.

It is rare that statistics are lies, but they are often manipulated in ways that flatter the case of the partisan advocate. So beware the bearers of statistical tidings. The numbers may not be what they seem.•


Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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