Examples of Bad Statistics in the News

I am constantly dumfounded by the lack of good statistics that are used in news stories.

Just this week a foundation in the UK produced a news release that close to 30% of the worlds plants are facing extinction!   If this is true, one third of the species in my yard might die.

But as I read this article, the authors really have no data to base the claim.  They decided if the globe warms as much as they believe, that some fraction of the plants will go extinct in their biome.  Oh yes, it will happen over 20 to 50 years.

  1. If warming makes a plant extinct in area A, then it will probably be growing north of area A where that climate exists.  An article in the Wall Street Journal documents that fish and lobsters on the US east coast are moving north, from what they believe might be warming waters.
  2. The article indicated that over 20,000 new plants species were found in the last few years.  Who knows, they may find more than are going extict.
  3. Their projection is based on a worst case projection that has not been project actual world temperatures over the past 10 years, so maybe their cause will not occur.

OK, my rant on fake news that is meant to drive emotions and grant funding.

Another peeve is when a new medicine claims to drop the chance of some malady by 50%!  sounds great, but when you get to read about it, the chance of having the malady is around 1/2%.  This expensive drug changes it to 1/4%.  Sounds like a bargain.

This last issue comes up a lot in Six Sigma improvement reports.  The reporting of percent gains of a percent metric.

  • If the defect rate is 10%
    It is reduced to 5% with my improvement.
  • Did I make a 50% improvement (reduced by 50%)?
    Did I make a 5% improvement (from 10 to 5%)?

percents of percents is a lousy way to judge changes.

A few more that bother me.

The unemployment rate:  It is reported as the percent of people that are “actively” looking for work that do not have a job this week.  What you may not know is that it excludes students in high school and college, Seniors,  along with anyone who did not “actively” look for work.  These populations are removed from the denominator of the percentage and numerator.  It is estimated that the true US unemployment rate, for people who want to work, is close to 30%.

The consumer price index (CPI) which is used for inflation.  This rate is also used to index increases in many social programs.  The government has a vested interest in keeping this index low to both save money and to appear to be good at managing the country.  The problem with it is that our government decided to remove prices that they deemed as too volatile for the index.  Which happened to be energy (gas, fuel oil, electricity) and some food.  So a few of my biggest expenses are not considered as part of the CPI.

Bad Statistics in Organizations

Bad statistics (and the lack of good reporting) does not just occur in the news, it also occurs in organizations.

The following video describes how many traditional scorecard reporting can lead to wasteful, if not destructive, behaviors and what to do to resolve the problem: