In this debate season we are hearing all sorts of numbers from politicans that tell us how wonderful they are and how evil their opponents are. If you don’t care much for the truth, take the numbers at face value and stop reading at this point.
Since you care about the truth, let me tell you a story of numbers to show how accurate numbers can be used to deceive. When I was a lieutenant in the Army in the 1980’s, I played goalkeeper for my post’s soccer team. I was a very average goalkeeper. Because Ft. Bliss was a NATO post, we got to play teams from other nations. One game that we played was against the team from the United Arab Emirates. If you were to ask me how our team did, I could have honestly answered by saying, “I stopped 50 shots on goal.” That sounds impressive. If you were to ask me a follow-up question like, “How many shots on goal did they take?,” to be honest I would have answered 63. With one answer, I sounded ready for the U.S. World Cup team. With the other answer, I sounded to be as porous as Spongebob Squarepants. One last question would give you some real meaningful information. It is “How many goals did your team score?” The answer is 1. We lost 13 to 1.
Mr. Obama claims that during his administration 4.5 million new jobs were created. That number is correct. However, the combination of workers retiring at an older age and the addition of new workers to the job force mean that to break even, 90,000 new jobs must be created each month. He has been president for 46 months. 46 times 90,000 equals 4.14 million. 4.5 minus 4.14 equals 360,000 net jobs added. Claiming 4.5 million new jobs when people think that a net gain of 4.5 million jobs occurred is a lie. When someone asks me how my team did in a soccer game, that person wants to if we won or lost. If I tell that person that I stopped 50 shots on goal, I am lying to that person because I am making that person think we did well.
Here is one more numerically accurate lie. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported unemployment at 7.8% at the end of the summer, something Mr. Obama took credit for. That number was somewhat accurate depending on how you define “employed.” The lie is tied up in the fact that millions of college students who were employed full-time through the end of August left their jobs to return to school. A reasonable person hearing the number 7.8% unemployment in mid-October thinks that is the current unemployment figure. It isn’t and that’s why it is a lie.
A good statistician knows how to not lie and yet fail to tell the truth. The same holds true for actuaries. The only difference is that a statistician can use data to convince you that what didn’t happen, did, while an actuary, armed with the same data, can convince you that what won’t happen, will.