I was forced to take statistics; a challenging class required for a degree, I was intimidated just like the rest of the students. However, I've never regretted it, especially when reading the newspaper.
Scanning the Aug. 13 New York Times in a coffee shop, my eye was drawn to bar graphs illustrating an article about the recent conflict in Lebanon. The Lebanese data were graphed in burnt sienna, the Israeli data in gold. I began reviewing the graphs, making comparisons. The first one represented the number of cities, towns or transportation sites in Lebanon attacked each day between July 12 and Aug. 10; further down was a similar graph for the Israeli side. You could quickly contrast the 10 to 12 Israeli sites versus the 40 to 60 Lebanese sites that were attacked each day.
Then I started looking at the next set of graphs - cumulative number of deaths in Lebanon and another graph lower down that had similarly large bars. Remember, I wasn't being particularly assiduous about how I was looking at this information; I was just killing time in a coffee shop. But, I became concerned because it appeared that the bulky bar graphs were using two different units of measure. The Lebanese death toll was represented with 250 persons per unit and the lower graph used 60 per unit, making the two bar graphs roughly equal in size in spite of the different total numbers. The implication was that the Lebanese and Israeli data were roughly equal because they took up the same amount of space on the page.
I was becoming irritated by this apparent distortion just as my husband arrived. When he looked at the graphs, however, he pointed out something more subtle, but similarly insidious. Further down the page was a thin line in gold, representing Israeli deaths. I'd totally overlooked it, partly because it was so small, but mostly because it was out of order. The Israeli graph that I'd assumed (by not reading carefully) was Israeli deaths in fact was the number of rockets fired at Israel each day (120 to 185 pretty consistently during Aug. 1 through 10). If I'd merely scanned the graphs and bold type headers "IN LEBANON" and "IN ISRAEL" and not read the notes, I would have assumed that the death and destruction was relatively equal on both sides.
While my year of statistics had led me to look more closely, I'd made the mistake of not studying the graphs closely enough. Teachers know that people learn in many different ways ... some by reading, some by listening, and some by looking at drawings, diagrams and photos. If I'd been one of the last type, I would have come away from the article with a distorted view of what's going on in the Middle East ... unless I focused on that thin line representing Israeli deaths.
This isn't the first time I've found my statistics coursework useful when reading the paper. I scrutinize every opinion poll that shows up in the news, look at the question and wonder if the responses would be different if the question were asked a little differently ... knowing that in fact the wording of a question can skew the results in a variety of directions.
We are being subjected to sophisticated propaganda every day. By using a graph of Hezbollah rocket attacks without a comparable graph of Israeli bombings, the journalists created a visual image that conveyed a misleading impression to the careless reader. By interjecting the graph about the number of rockets fired on Israel between the graphs for Israeli sites attacked and number of deaths in Israel, the authors buffered the information that there'd been only 100 Israeli deaths compared with 1,000 deaths in Lebanon during the same period. The meaning could have been enhanced if the number of Israeli air attacks and bombs dropped had also been graphed or if the number of Hezbollah rocket attacks had been a separate graph elsewhere on the page. Then a true comparison of mortality rates would have been obvious. Even if the number of rocket attacks had been at the bottom of the series of graphs, allowing the comparative data to be in the same order, it would have been less misleading
In his autobiography Mark Twain quoted British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." If everyone in this so-called "information age" had to study statistical methods, more of us would be able to read a newspaper and winnow out the truth, especially during wartime.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer from Ilwaco.