By Henry Oliner

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Winston Churchill

While attributed to Churchill this quote has a history before his time, but imagine how today’s social media magnifies this axiom.

The New York Times published Amid ‘Trump Effect’ Fear, 40% of Colleges See Dip in Foreign Applicants.  The message is clear, but the data is selective and misleading.

The complete data reported that “39% of responding institutions reported a decline in international applications, 35% reported an increase, and 26% reported no change in applicant numbers.”  The net result is that there is no meaningful change.  Reporting the first number without the other two is grossly misleading.

And this is the New York Times, the bastion of responsible journalism.

It is no great revelation that we filter the news to match our narrative of the world, but the social media is such a viral tool that it makes fools of many. The more outlandish the claim that supports our view, the quicker we are to ‘share’ and ‘retweet’.

Recently the Washington Post (another bastion of responsible journalism) published a story about the lack of affordable housing for the poor in Here’s how much you would need to afford rent in your state by Tracy Jan.  Fortunately, Kevin Williamson at National Review points out the statistical fallacy in using the median price of housing and comparing it to the lowest end of the income scale.  By the same logic the middle class cannot afford housing in the Hamptons.

It is hard to be sympathetic to the media who are so offended at the charge of ‘fake news’ when they engage is such misleading media malpractice, almost always in a single political direction. I find patience difficult for the fools on social media who so quickly parrot such poorly vetted news.  “Wow! This proves my incredibly self-righteous, virtue signaling, morally superior, intellectually valid views: Quick! Share! Repost! “

It is endless. One post blamed inequality on Reagan’s tax cut.  Did they consider that because of the personal tax RATE cut that many C-Corporations converted to Subchapter S corporations? This shifted income from the corporate reporting to the personal tax returns showing a jump in personally reported income, but not a real net change. Likewise, the inflationary 70’s led to many investments in inflation hedges not reflected in reportable financial statements (gold coins).  When Volcker succeeded in conquering inflation these assets flowed into reportable 1099s.

Inequality is also a by-product of women’s rise in income. In the old days a wealthy executive married a women with less income. Now that women make up half of accountants, lawyers, doctors, PhD candidates, MBAs, they are more likely to seek marriage to a high paid male.  Guess what that does to household income? In “The Inequality Trap: Fighting Capitalism Instead of Poverty” author William Watson calculates that this trend alone may account for 26% of the rise of inequality.

Inequality measurements are distorted by several other factors: measuring households instead of individuals (a lot of the high household incomes have two wage earners) , measuring income before taxes and transfer payments, picking selective time periods to exaggerate changes, the impact of a small number of super wealthy, and the inability to track changes in quality of life.  A better measure may be to track consumption which bypasses these distortions.

Before you quickly abide the fans of Thomas Piketty and his Capital in The Twenty First Century or The Economics of Inequality you may want to digest his critics, which are numerous and illuminating.

It may also be that inequality is less important outside of academic and pundit circles than mobility and absolute levels of poverty. Some of the poorest countries have low levels of measurable inequality.

The point is that the subject is much more complicated than most are willing to accept. Even the most respected journalists are seduced more by the political angle than accuracy and open mindedness.  This travesty is multiplied thousands of times on the social media by the lazy who read for confirmation rather than information.

These are just a sample of such misleading news items. The health insurance debate constantly used a figure of 46 million uninsured; a number inflated by including foreign visitors, prisoners, people who qualified for existing programs who failed to register, and the relative wealthy young who chose to pay as needed.  When Obama signed the ACA he spoke of the thirty million who would now have coverage. I always wondered what happened to the other 16 million?

Rarely is the 97% consensus on AGW ever subjected to minimal statistical scrutiny; what is the precise agreement on the consensus and what group or subgroup of scientists is included AND not included  in the consensus?  Maybe there is a man caused climate problem, but a 97% consensus on a topic of such scientific complexity and political controversy is subject to contain a substantial self-confirming bias.

My advice, which I am certain few will head:

  • Drastic changes are rare.  Life tends to regress to the mean.
  • The more outrageous the claim, the likelier it is that a relevant piece of the story is missing.
  • Professional political pundits are likely to be wrong. (I remain an amateur, and I am still usually wrong.)
  • The more hostile to dissent, the greater the moral outrage, the weaker the argument.
  • The most respected media sources are far from immune to bias.
  • The very character of social media making the quick proliferation of bad information so easy and accessible, renders it more of a liability than a value. It is best to ignore.
  • Remember these words of wisdom : ‘Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions’. (GWB)


another case of misleading stats; How Much Did Poverty Rise Under Reagan:

This is from a Jeff Madrick article on poverty in America, in the New York Review of Books:

The poverty rate has been as low as 11.1 percent, in the 1970s; it rose under Ronald Reagan to approximately 15 percent and then fell to about 13 percent before rising again, then fell again under Bill Clinton to 11.3 percent before rising in the 2000s.I see this all the time, and I find it really annoying. In a very technical sense this is true, but I’m going to present more complete data, and you tell me whether it’s misleading.

The poverty rate was 11.6% when Carter took office in 1977. The poverty rate rose to 14% in 1981, when Reagan took office. The poverty rate fell to 12.8% in 1989, when Reagan left office.

So how can the NYR of Books say “it rose under Reagan to approximately 15 percent”? That’s because in Reagan’s second year there was a very serious recession, and the poverty rate reached 15%. But the NYR of Books creates the impression that it rose during the 8 years that Reagan was in office, which is simply not true. Poverty fell under Reagan. it was Jimmy Carter who presided over a surge in poverty.