The subtle art of statistics

I did really well in statistics when I was at UF. I liked it so much I took two different courses in statistics. That’s showing the numbers some love. While not an expert in statistics, I consider myself an astute observer of facts and figures. So I found my numerical senses tingling when I received an email from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, U.S. Congresswoman from the 18th district of Florida.

How did I get on a Republican congresswoman’s mailing list – a congresswoman who doesn’t even represent my district? Does she even know I’m a registered Democrat? What would she say if she knew Al Franken resides on my bookshelf? I have no idea, but that’s not really important to this story. Here’s where the fun begins, her message was urging me to support The Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life organization that she is proud to serve on the advisory committee for, in helping to inform voters like me about a key issue so I can make an informed decision on election day. That’s not just me being sarcastic, that’s an actual paraphrase of her email. The heck with paraphrasing, here’s a quote: “The topic of abortion is such an emotional issue that the facts are often lost in the rhetoric. Polls show – despite what you might have read in the newspaper or seen on TV – that a plurality of Americans in general and women specifically are pro-life.”

All right, I was trying to throw in a pinch of sarcasm too; but not because I don’t have some sympathy for her cause. So why the fuss? Read on, dear reader, read on.

That quote really jumped out and bit me in the decimal point, so much so that I was lured into clicking the hyperlink to view the poll results. ( You see, all of the polls I’ve seen show that a majority of Americans support abortion rights, in one form or another – and not by a narrow margin. So I followed the link to the Susan B. Anthony List web site. The page summarized a May 2004 CBS poll, which asked respondents to pick one statement from a list, which most closely represented their view of abortion.
Here were the choices:
1. Abortion should be generally available to those that want it.
2. Abortion should be available, but under stricter limits than it is now.
3. Abortion should not be permitted.
The results were,.
Thirty-six percent of respondents felt it should be generally available.
Thirty-seven percent felt there should be stricter limits.
Twenty-five percent felt that it should not be permitted.
Based on these results, there was a large banner which proudly proclaimed: “Majority of Americans are Pro-Life! …. Poll after poll shows that the American people overwhelmingly support restrictions on abortion.”

Huh? Are we looking at the same results?

So let’s summarize the statements by Ms. Ros-Lihtinen and The Susan B. Anthony List, the media is misleading and a majority of Americans are pro-life. The trouble with these statements is that the evidence they present don’t seem to support their argument. (in my humble opinion) In order to arrive at their conclusion that a majority of Americans are Pro-Life, they add up the percentage of Americans that are against abortion with those who support more restrictions. Combined, these two groups comprise sixty-two percent of respondents – which do indeed outnumber the percentage of respondents who feel it should be generally available. Since each group makes up roughly one third of the respondents, this middle group that wants more restrictions is the key. Sure, more restrictions is a stop-gap strategy of the Pro-Life movement, but does that make this middle group Pro-Life?

Consider what was in the news when the poll was taken in May 2004. The so called “Partial Birth Abortion” ban was signed into law by Dubya in the end of 2003. Shortly thereafter, a Judge in Nebraska entered a temporary injunction against enforcement of the ban. By May of 2004, when the poll took place, two more cases were filed (in New York and California) seeking a similar injunction. The case in California eventually resulted in a permanent injunction, but it was signed after the poll was taken. However, all of this was in the news, and was pretty big news, at the time the poll was taken. What’s the point? Simple. A majority of Americans are against such procedures, as banned by the legislation. Many Americans who otherwise support abortion rights are against such procedures. Would you call these folks Pro-Life? What percentage of respondents who answered that they support abortion in some fashion, but favor further restrictions, had the so called “partial birth” procedure in mind when they answered the poll? What if most of those folks were against the recently publicized procedure, but still supported abortion as a form of birth control? In my book, that hardly makes them Pro-Lifers.

Remember, the all important middle group SUPPORTS abortion rights in some form, but favors some relatively unknown level of restrictions. So look at those same numbers in a slightly different manner than the folks at the Susan B. Anthony List. Notice that if you combine the two groups who believe abortion should be available (with or without more restrictions), all of a sudden this combined group outnumbers those who believe it should not be available by a margin of seventy-three to twenty-five percent! It kind of sucks to look at the numbers that way, doesn’t it?

I’ve heard that the easiest way to reduce crime statistics is to make fewer things a crime. Have the Pro-Lifers changed the score by watering down their goals? If so, why not go for 100 percent? It’s within reach. All they need to do is compromise a few more of their beliefs.

Why are these folks hung up over being popular? Since when is the deciding argument in a moral dilemma: “it’s the way most other folks feel.” Slavery was pretty popular in the south, but that didn’t make that right. So forget about polls. Stick to the meat of your argument. If you can’t make a good argument for the Pro-Life movement, beyond popular sentiment, you’ve got bigger problems than popularity.