The Evolution of a Statistic: A lesson in how politicians manipulate the truth

70,000 jobs lost! Really?

In this article at CNN, Mike Ahlers demonstrates how a statistic can gradually morph into something it was never intended to be and be used to prove what it was never intended to say.

George Mason University Professor Steve Fuller conducted the study used to reach the estimate of 70,000 layoffs in construction due to the FAA shutdown. According to the article, Fuller said the estimate includes everything from actual construction workers, who were laid off, to drug store clerks and restaurant waitresses, who might see “a tiny bit less revenue flow.”


The true number of laid-off construction workers is probably one-third of that figure, Fuller told CNN . . .

The 70,000 figure entered the public sphere when the FAA turned to Associated General Contractors of America, a construction industry group, to calculate the economic impact of the FAA funding impasse.

An AGC economist applied Fuller’s formula to the FAA’s $2.5 billion construction halt and came to the conclusion that it would put “24,000 construction workers out of work.” Another 11,000 workers in related businesses “are also affected,” the AGC said, and “as many as 35,000 jobs will be undermined in the broader economy, from the lunch wagon near the job site to the truck dealership across town.”

In a subsequent Department of Transportation news releases and statements, the information was abbreviated, losing much of its important nuance.

“AGC estimates that 70,000 construction workers and workers in related fields have been affected,” the DOT reported in one news release.

(emphasis mine)

From there it was a matter of time before the political version of the game “Telephone” took over. The article takes you through each step as the number evolved. By the time the statement had moved through Congress and the White House teleprompter, it reached the lips of the AFL-CIO Executive Council yesterday.

In a news release, it said House Republicans “jeopardized 90,000 airport construction jobs.” Two sentences later, it went for the brass ring: “Congress must (act) to preserve almost 100,000 American jobs,” it said.

Given human nature, I don’t believe this “evolution” was deliberate. People simply fail to get all the facts and nuance of studies, and it’s simpler (and more effective) to make a generalized statement than to be specific.

Also, this is what happens when you “spin” numbers to buttress your position. They evolve into a unrecognizable mutant.

How would you describe your attitude toward political figures/statistics/numbers? Personally, I tend to fluctuate between suspicious and cynical.


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