Accuracy in Media

One of the best books I ever had to buy in journalism school was also one of the shortest: “How To Lie With Statistics,” a 142-page paperback tutorial written by Darrell Huff in 1954.

The book, which tackles a complex subject in layman’s language, is still being translated into new languages today, according to Wikipedia. It was required reading in journalism school because good watchdogs need to know how politicians, businesses and others manipulate statistics to pursue their agendas.

Today I remembered Huff’s signature work, and grabbed it from my bookshelf, when I read a quote from a journalism teacher to his students on the blog Overheard In The Newsroom: “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is interesting, but what they hide is crucial.”

I keyed on the word “hide” because that’s exactly what some climate scientists have been doing with statistics that are inconvenient to their agenda of convincing policymakers, the public and gullible journalists that man is causing the globe to warm.

Hide the decline,” a key phrase buried within recently disclosed e-mails among climate scientists, quickly became the slogan that has defined the “ClimateGate” scandal. Even liberal comedian Jon Stewart used the phrase to mock the “experts” implicated in the scandal.

After scanning the yellowed pages in my copy of “How To Lie With Statistics,” I’m convinced that climate scientists have read it — but with evil intentions. Chapter titles like “The Sample With The Built-In Bias,” “The Little Figures That Are Not There,” “The Gee-Whiz Graph” and “How To Statisticulate” sound like study guides for professors like Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University and Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia, where the e-mail scandal originated.

I’m also convinced that Andrew Revkin of The New York Times and other journalists, particularly environmental reporters who put their trust in climate scientists, need to read Huff’s book again — or for the first time if it wasn’t required reading when they were in school. They need to be reminded of insights like this, taken from the chapters cited above:

  • “Even if you can’t find a source of demonstrable bias, allow yourself some degree of skepticism about the results as long as there is a possibility of bias somewhere. There always is.”
  • “The deceptive thing about the little figure that is not there is that its absence so often goes unnoticed. That, of course, is the secret of its success.”
  • “But suppose you wish to win an argument, shock a reader, move him into action, sell him something. Chop off the bottom [of a graph]. … It is the same graph. Nothing has been falsified — except the impression that it gives.”
  • “The fact is that, despite its mathematical base, statistics is as much an art as it is a science. A great many manipulations and even distortions are possible within the bounds of propriety. … Even the man in academic work may have a bias (possibly unconscious) to favor, a point to prove, an axe to grind.

Anyone can lie with statistics, and as last month’s treasure trove of enlightening e-mails reveals, leading climate scientists have been doing just that for many years. Good journalists should have been doing all along what editors tell them: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” Now they have reason to be even more skeptical.

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