Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lying with Statistics

This Associated Press article strongly infers, but doesn't quite say, that most young Americans are either morons or cripples. Let's see what they don't say in order to make the story more alarmist.

First, the article says that nearly a quarter of young Americans haven't learned enough to pass the entrance test. What they should say is that nearly a quarter of the young Americans who attempt enlistment can't pass their test - a very different thing altogether.

Who attempts enlistment? Mostly youngsters who cannot or choose not to go to college. Common sense suggests they are, on average, the least academically qualified youngsters in any particular year's cohort. So, nearly a quarter of the least academically qualified cannot pass the armed services entrance test - no big surprise.

Second, the article says that the Pentagon claims that roughly three-quarters of young people of military enlistment age are ineligible because they are either physically unfit, didn't graduate from high school, or have a criminal record. What I want to know is whether it is three quarters of those trying to enlist or three quarters of all young people? These are very different groups of young folks.

The article does not lie, but selects statistics in misleading ways to make a more alarming picture of American youth. You can understand why this happens, a writer is trying to get an editor to accept a story. I fear the journo motto is "Dramatic is better, even if misleading."