Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Facts, damn facts, and statistics

Posted By on 08.01.12 at 09:39 AM

Numbers are so much fun
  • Basilemorin
  • Numbers are so much fun
In a recent column, the Tribune's Eric Zorn attempted to parse the complicated question of whether Chicago gets more, or less, than its rightful share of state aid for education. "So what's the bottom line?" Zorn asked himself as he wrapped up the exercise. But there wasn't just one bottom line. There were two.

There was the Republicans' "detailed spreadsheet" showing that Chicago schools come out $137 million ahead of where they'd be "if everything—including pensions—were calculated using the same formulas in every district." And then there was Chicago's chart that "goes at the problem a different way" and concludes that Chicago serves 19.5 percent of the students but gets only 18.6 percent of all school aid.

Zorn didn't try to choose between the two contradictory bottom lines. He threw up his hands. "The different approaches to school funding," he concluded, "are so needlessly complex as to be opaque."

I question needlessly. Opacity is usually in someone's interests—though often not the public's.

But I don't question the multiplicity of bottom lines. Congressman Barney Frank famously likes to say, "You're entitled to your own opinion. You're not entitled to your own facts." But this supposes facts to be scarce enough to be worth counterfeiting, and the fact is there are facts galore. As I've noted on other occasions, the reason dueling pundits can write unassailable columns that come to diametrically opposite conclusions is that everyone picks the facts that make his case and leaves the ones that don't rotting on the tree. Not that they'll actually rot. The next pundit working the same orchard will add them to his basket. Facts are low-hanging fruit.

For instance, it is a fact that Huma Abedin, who is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's deputy chief of staff, is a Muslim. It is also a fact that Abedin has not proved she couldn't possibly have close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. And it is a fact that if she had them, her categorical denials would simply be more evidence of her perfidy. These facts and others as sturdy led Michele Bachmann in June to state her concern "that there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood," and to point to Abedin as Evidence A.

It is a fact that Democrats are hammering Mitt Romney over the years he spent becoming wildly rich by running the Bain Capital investment fund. It's also a fact that Bane is the masked sociopath who creates bedlam in Gotham City and comes within seconds of turning the city into radioactive ash in The Dark Knight Rises. It's a fact that Bain and Bane are homonyms. So Rush Limbaugh was merely putting two and two together when he pointed out that once voters "start paying attention to the [presidential] campaign later in the year, and Obama and the Democrats keep talking about Bain, not Bain Capital but Romney and Bain, that these people will start thinking back to the Batman movies, 'Oh yeah, I know who that is!'"

Skilled craftsmen know how to put two and two together in lots of different ways. And if they add a couple of other numbers they can come up with just about anything they please.

What's more factual than a number? A two isn't a two only if the light shines on it a certain way, or in some parts of the country but not others, or only to members of certain faiths. A two is a two. A three is a three. A four is a four. If there's a consensus on anything in this country it's on what the cardinal numbers represent.

So for purposes of metaphorical illumination, let's suppose you've assembled the facts 1, 2, 3, and 4. What can you make of them?

About anything you please.

1 — 2 — 3 + 4 = 0
(1 + 4) / (2 + 3) = 1
(4 — 3) + (2 — 1) = 2
(4 — 1) / (3 — 2) = 3
(4 / 1) / (3 — 2) = 4
(1 + 4) / (3 — 2) = 5
1 + 4 + 3 — 2 = 6
4 + 3 / (2 — 1) = 7
4 + 3 + 2 — 1 = 8
(4 + 3 + 2) / 1 = 9
4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 10
4 x 3 — 2 + 1 = 11
4 x 3 x (2 — 1) = 12
4 x 3 + (2 — 1) = 13
(4 x 3 + 2) / 1 = 14
4 x 3 + 2 +1 = 15
4 x (3 + 2 — 1) = 16
(4 + 1) x 3 + 2 = 17
4 x (3 + 1) + 2 = 18
4 x (3 + 2) — 1 = 19
(4 x (3 + 2)) / 1 + 20
(4 + 1 + 2) x 3 = 21
(4 x 3 — 1) x 2 = 22
4 x 3 x 2 — 1 = 23
4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 24
4 x 3 x 2 + 1 = 25

Four simple facts. Pick the conclusion that's right for you.

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