The Problem with Statistics

The most popular percentage of the hour is 47%. (The unemployment statistic can’t make up its mind and for those of you who missed it, “We are the 98%” is so nine months ago.)

Don’t worry – this post isn’t going to tell you which party you should support or who to vote for. Heaven knows there’s enough of that going around. This post was actually inspired by a conversation two friends of mine had on Facebook following the first presidential debate. The conversation went something like this:

“Did you know that 47% — nearly half of Americans don’t pay federal taxes?”

“But of that 47%, at least 60% do pay payroll taxes. It’s not like they’re not paying taxes at all. And at least 10% of those are elderly.”

“Well, that means 40% still pay no payroll taxes and no federal tax. Did you know that at least 1 out of every 10 Americans today is taking government assistance?”

“But that means 9 out of 10 aren’t. And the 47% doesn’t count the people in a blue state who live on an American Indian reserve.”

“But that also doesn’t account the number of voters who prefer red balloons and want to cut Big Bird from public television.”

OK, so maybe I made those last few up. But you get the idea.

The point is, you can make statistics say just about anything. If you believe recent statistics on The Today Show, Obama supporters are more likely to eat at Red Lobster, shop at Burlington Coat Factory and listen to smooth jazz, while Romney supporters are more likely to eat at Olive Garden, drink Samuel Adams beer and watch BCS football. (I did not make that part up.) One side starts spouting statistics, then the other side starts spouting their version of the same statistics. Then they both dig in their heels and accuse the other side of being “irresponsible” and “believing lies.”

For this reason, I mainly vote on principle. I’m not saying we should completely ignore statistics – I just find this a little more helpful than getting completely lost in a world of hyper-generated stats. It isn’t a secret what each party generally believes, and what they will generally try to accomplish when in office.

When political season is upon us, we all roll our eyes, except for the 47% who like to eat chocolate donuts in the rain while reminiscing about Walter Cronkite. But we generally do the same thing year round when it comes to divisions in the body of Christ. Each denomination makes an ironclad doctrine of what they believe using pretty much the same passages of scripture and accuses other denominations of “believing lies.” One side interprets a passage one way, one side another, and not only is the other side “wrong” – sometimes they’re not even saved.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t stand up for our principles or that it’s not OK to feel strongly about what you believe. And I’m certainly not going to weigh in on who is or isn’t saved. My point is, when expressing your beliefs or trying to enlighten others in said beliefs, remember a lesson from political season.

Remember the 47%.