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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Niagara Falls, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ve been stopped at the border by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) before. A group of us went on pilgrimage to Toronto to see Group of Seven paintings. On the way back, Jennifer proved to be of special interest. She cooled her heels so we all cooled our heels.

Leaving the Bahamas, I didn’t realize the banana I’d tucked in my backpack needed to be declared. While the customs official searched my carry-on bags and ticked me off about the fines for smuggling, my other bag—the one with the dangerous contraband—sailed right through.

Just kidding. I’m a very law-abiding citizen.

Detentions at the border may not be up, but news stories about them certainly are. It’s another case of journalistic innumeracy. When people talk about “fake news,” it’s because they no longer trust what media tells them, and this is because reporters frequently don't ask the salient questions: How good are the numbers? How biased is the source? How significant is the deviation?

Not all border crossings are swank. This is the approach to Top of the World Border Crossing between Alaska and the Yukon. You need to check the hours before you show up.
When I was twenty, I could tuck a dime into my bikini and stroll across the Rainbow Bridge. (This is a real place, BTW, and not a metaphor for pet mortality.) I’ve crossed the US-Canadian border countless times since then. My body has loosened and border security has tightened in equal measure.

But my experiences are anecdotal evidence. To make a valid argument from them, they need to be supported by fact. Since 2009, we’ve needed a passport or equivalent to cross the US-Canada border. That’s a fact that supports my impressions.

All educated people know that a coin toss always has a 50% chance of coming up tails. However, after a string of bad tosses, our guts tell us that our luck has to change soon, that it’s time for the coin to fall our way.

It’s the job of our civilized, reasonable, educated minds to remind our unruly hearts that probability is immutable. However, casino gambling is a $70 billion/year industry in America. That’s a sign that we don’t do a very good job of thinking rationally.

Bahamians are tea-drinkers. My first cup of real coffee in a week, in suburban Boston.
At times, our lack of factual literacy has public-policy repercussions. For example, in 1996, we passed the Church Arson Prevention Act and created the National Church Arson Task Force in response to a wave of black church fires. But as Michael Fumento said at the time, this was a false crisis based on bad data supplied by an advocacy group.

As sentient citizens, we have a moral duty to seek truth. No tools are unbiased, so use some from either side. Better yet, use them from the other side, a trick a lobbyist friend once suggested to me. On the left, there is FiveThirtyEight, on the right, the Heritage Foundation. Read them both, and everything in between. Or, at least read something, and do it with a skeptical mind.

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