Faking it

Visit this Padlet to view another graph which employs the truncated x-axis trick.

But this manoeuvre is trivial compared to a much more serious manipulation; the picture fakes one of the numbers. The graphic claims that there are more people on “welfare” (“benefits” in UK parlance) than are working full time jobs. But the welfare numbers are actually the total number of people living in a household for which at least one person is on welfare whereas the work numbers are people working full time jobs themselves without including the people living in their households.

Number fakery takes us into different, and scarier, territory. It’s one thing to learn how to spot a misleading graph that is, nevertheless, based on real numbers. It’s another thing entirely to pursue numerical claims back to their original sources and find, perhaps, that there’s nothing there.

Let’s take another example. US Vice President Mike Pence claimed in 2018 that the US had

“apprehended more than 10 terrorists or suspected terrorists per day at our southern border from countries that are referred to in the lexicon as ‘other than Mexico’ ― that means from the Middle East region.”

However, the Washington Post investigated and found this claim to be false.

The US may stop roughly 10 suspected terrorists per day from entering the US at all ports of entry but it seems that few, if any, of these people try to enter along the southern border.

The two above examples involve false numerical claims emanating from the political right in the USA but the right does not have a monopoly on the circulation of fake numbers. For example, in 2018 a false claim circulated widely that the Trump administration had lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children, all now possible victims of child traffickers.

This claim is based, essentially, on an assumption that not answering a telephone call from US government officials implies that a household’s children have been trafficked.

Discussion

The three falsehoods outlined above all contain some element of truth, to varying degrees.

How important do you think this truthy element is for the successful propagation of these false stories?

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This article is from the free online course:

Survival Statistics: Secrets for Demystifying Numbers

Royal Holloway, University of London