We've all heard the joke about the statistician who drowned in a lake with an average depth of 4 inches and we've all heard the Mark Twain quote that he attributed to Benjamin Disraeli: there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. Is there any way other than appeals to faith used more to bolster weak arguments than a graph, a chart, a string of numbers? It's so common we don't notice and worse, we don't check facts.
I read an article the other day which began with the observation that Japan has a higher life expectancy than the United States. That's probably true, but the article went straight from there to a rhapsody about the Japanese diet and that theme, that Meme so adored by Americans: our food is poisonous and full of "artificial" ingredients which are killing us.
Being a skeptic by nature and particularly as concerns any article about health and nutrition or food chemistry I took the trouble to look at the WHO statistics by country and yes, it's true about Japan, but when you note that number 2 is Spain, followed by Andorra, Singapore, and Switzerland -- Australia, Italy, San Marino and Monaco all with essentially identical numbers, I had to ask myself just what similarity in diet there is between these and the 39 countries between Japan and the United States. Not much, I fear, so perhaps the unmentioned assumption: that the primary factor in national longevity expectations is diet, must be questioned. Something the article does not do but rather taps into our national hypochondria. Is it wrong to observe that all those countries have far greater access to health care? Are suicide rates taken into account? Accidents, homicides, numbers of people incarcerated, infant mortality, quality of health care and emergency services, elder care? How many people ask?
People who use statistics to sell things often leave large gaps in their arguments which are filled with unsupported assumptions, as does this one. Is a fish based diet good for you? Quite possibly if you don't have allergies to sea food, but you can't get to that conclusion with this argument, which in fact starts with that assumption. Do genetics play a part in longevity? From what I read they do and the US is far, for more genetically diverse than Japan or Andorra and in fact so is the American diet. So should I seek salvation in Sushi or is there more to it than that?
Everybody does it, and particularly those bodies that have elected themselves to speak for causes, from product safety to immigration to gun control. Facts are easy to fudge, to select from, to edit and redact. It's easy to confuse "linked to' and "caused by." Is the fact that there is a link between marijuana and crime the result of marijuana being illegal in teh first place? The argument for it being a "gateway drug" depends on not looking at the "link' between alcohol, cigarettes and in fact almost anything we all do and drug usage.
Complex causes and simple or single causes. Who likes to confuse them fallaciously more than activists who aren't often quite as rational or honest as you might expect. As I said, there are more ways to increase life span than to eat Sashimi and sea weed. Want to cut the US gun related "murder" rate? Stop lumping suicides in with murder. According to the New York Times 60% of what we call murders are suicides. Would the corrected number still be too great? sure, but making things seem worse than they are is the practice of every political organization on Earth. Is Trump lying about swarms of Mexicans crossing the Southern border? Sure, there are more going the other direction? Is there an Autism epidemic? Real statistics seem to refute it, anti-vaccine people counter with anecdotes and anger. It's endless, it's pervasive, even ubiquitous. It's lies, Damned lies and statistics.