Science Cafe event reveals lies in statistics


The “Science Café: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics” event, held on Friday, Jan. 30 at 12:30 p.m. in C130A near the cafeteria, was named after Mark Twain’s famous quote,“There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” It was joint sponsored by the Science and Math Institute, the science division outreach program and the Multicultural Service Center, who also provided pizza and refreshment for those who attended the event.

According to BC’s daily FYI bulletin, math faculty Jennifer Townsend discussed “how numbers are often presented to add validity, and sometimes confusion, to news, sports, politics, as well as many other areas”

One of SAMI’s goals at BC is to “cosponsor events around campus to make science a little more appealing in popular talks [among students], and this is one of those events,” said Townsend. Furthermore, Townsend stated, this event “is about how you can use statistics and numbers to lie, and how you can see how those numbers are used to lie in the media and be a little cautious about the statistics that are portrayed on television and by the government, and whatever other source you have.”

One of the ideas discussed in the event was global warming. Various statisticians and politicians,  use different data to either prove or disprove global warming. The idea of “average” was also discussed. Townsend shared, “We’ll look at examples where the average salary doesn’t really represent what an average person makes.” She continued to illustrate her point:

“Say you’re in a coffee shop, five people are there and they make $50,000, the average [salary] is $50,000. Now in walks Bill Gates who makes billions and billions of dollars a year, the average [now] is millions of dollars a year, but the average person in the coffee shop really doesn’t earn millions. So talking about how numbers could be misleading if you just report the average then it seems like everybody in the coffee shop is doing well financially, but when we just talk about those numbers out of context, they can be misleading. How numbers can mislead, how graphs and data can be used to mislead.” In other words, Townsend discussed how the meaning of “average” used in the media or other sources is different from its mathematical definition. The “average” that is most commonly used means the most representative person. In Townsend’s example, she explains how in a system, the few outliers tend to tip the “average” scale.

There were also discussions about how charts and graphs from news agencies like Fox are misleading and how they should be corrected. Several copies of “Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dead from the Data” by Charles Wheelan were gifted as well as “Signal and the Noise” by Nate Silver—the well-known American statistician who analyzes sports and elections.