Statistics don’t lie, but they can be misread

Nowadays you hear a lot of numbers being thrown around, particularly about the drought in California. Some are believable and rational, but others seem almost straight up outrageous.

Journalists often use statistics nowadays to back up their reporting. They use infographics and pull out quotes to justify their use, and to draw more attention to this basis of their argument.


Kevin Ross, a Cal Poly statistics professor, said, “My general opinion is that it’s much better now than it used to be. I think it’s good that people are using data but I think there’s a danger. I think people have a tendency to think that it’s a number and its quantitative, and they don’t stop to think if it’s qualitative.”

Statistics become an issue when not used correctly. Fox News has come under scrutiny for its incorrect graphs and statistics in the past, but it’s not only blatant falsities that fall under fire. It is also problematic when statistics are not properly explained.

Dallas Long, a Cal Poly student, said on the subject, “I don’t usually believe the statistics I read since they seem so out there.”

This presents a problem though, since once people lose their trust in the institution of statistics, it is lost forever. The opposite is also true though, that once people put their faith in statistics, it stays there, whether or not that faith is deserved.

People in this day and age are used to getting what they want when they want it. They also believe they’re always right, a trait that is both good and bad in this age of immediately available information. People and the statistics they believe can be proved right or wrong within seconds, depending on your data carrier.

This is the route to Hume Lake. (Photo by Amanda Cranston) (31 July 2014)
This is rain clouds on the route to Hume Lake. (Photo by Amanda Cranston) (31 July 2014)

The fact that California has not had enough rain or snowpack in recent years is undebatable though, no matter what statistic you look at. When a person can drive through the grapevine in December without fearing being snowed in, there’s something wrong.

Alyssa Lucero, a Cal Poly student, said, “The drought in California is definitely serious but I don’t feel like it’s really personally affected me. Cal Poly has let a few patches of grass die but that’s really all. I know girls who take 30 minute showers still, it just doesn’t seem like an issue that hits home.”

Because for all the scary statistics and all the belief or non belief, people are going to behave as they always have. Media is using statistics mostly correctly, but it’s not having the impact on the audience it should be.

Showers are not the problem, and the drought, while undeniably a challenge faced, could be much less dire. What the statistics don’t show is the fight for land and water and the future. They don’t show the impact that articles such as this ignore, that the environment needs to be protected and deserves to keep the water reserved for it.

I was fortunate enough to visit Death Valley the one year in my lifetime it had rained a substantial amount. Though it was still quite dry and desert-like, one of the main roads had been washed away. There were flowers blooming all over and yet it was also still incredibly dry and could only be described as a desert. One year did not the problem solve.

This is myself, Amanda Cranston, and Eric Cranston. (Photo by Rebecca Peyton) (summer several years ago)
This is myself, Amanda Cranston, and Eric Cranston. (Photo by Rebecca Peyton) (summer several years ago)

That’s why statistics can be helpful though. A graph shows you, in a very easy to understand way, that while rainfall and snowpack levels were so high only a few years ago, they’re only a small fraction of that amount now. Yet that comes with problems, for the values must be correctly presented, the scale must be to size, and people must be informed.

It’s all about application. It doesn’t matter if you have the most data or the best study, simply that it was done right and is representative. It matters only that what you show the people is correct and right and not misleading. Journalists have a responsibility to the public to not give them what they want, but what they need, and what they need in this drought is the truth, hard and fast, without fluff. To address a problem you first need to recognize it’s there, and we haven’t truly done that yet, at least on an individual level.


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