Politicians Aren’t the Only Ones Who Use Fuzzy Math; Journalists Like It Too

This week’s New Yorker features an interesting article by Hendrik Hertzberg about American presidential dynasties. He quotes an A.P. article by Nancy Benac which states that “[f]orty per cent of Americans have never lived when there wasn’t a Bush or a Clinton in the White House.”

Really? That’s amazing.

Hertzberg quotes Benac further in the next paragraph:

“Talk of Bush-Clinton fatigue is increasingly cropping up in the national political debate,” Benac goes on. “If Hillary Clinton were to be elected and reëlected, the nation could go twenty-eight years in a row with the same two families governing the country. Add the elder Bush’s terms as Vice-President, and that would be thirty-six years straight with a Bush or Clinton in the White House.”

While these statements pack a nice rhetorical punch, if you examine the initial claim — that 40 percent of Americans have never lived without a Clinton or Bush in the White House — against the U.S. census data by age group (click the top link to download an Excel spreadsheet of the data), the numbers don’t add up. Unless, that is, you’re already counting George Bush Sr.‘s eight years as vice president — which Benac freely admitted she was:

Already, for 116 million Americans, there has never been a time when there wasn’t a Bush or Clinton in the White House, either as president or vice president (emphasis added).

Hertzberg, apparently in order to make his point at the top of the piece, left out that crucial fact — i.e., that you need to include the elder Bush’s 8 years as vice president in order to reach the eye-catching 40 percent.

It looks like it isn’t just the candidates who tend to monkey with numbers to make a point; it’s the journalists too.


JS

Politics, ahhhh!

Allogene

And 86.9% of statistics are made up.

What do you expect? 40% of Americans is much better than 14.8% (or whatever the real percentage is) as a headline. Both politicians and reporters are trying to sell a product and since most people have no ability to but statistics in perspective they will believe whatever numbers you put in front of them. The bigger the better when you are trying to sell something.

Pete

It's hard to argue with the numbers unless you actually know the real ones.

Either way, he makes an interesting observation, I wouldn't mind having someone new in the White House, but I just don't particularly like any of the current candidates. Why are we always forced to choose the lesser of 2 evils?

Mark

This is by far not the most egregious misuse of statistics by the news media. Check this out: http://mjb.biglaughs.org/2007/10/23/misleading-statistics-reporters-want-you-to-see/

November

Doesn't sound fuzzy to me, sounds accurate. I don't think it was necessary to clarify the point that more than just el presidente work in the White House. The writer shouldn't be held responsible for reader's interjections.

Ben

I read this in the paper and, without too much cognitive strain, was able to grasp that the number in question (40%) did indeed include the VEEP years for Bush Sr.

Let's give journalists a little rhetorical wiggle room, especially if they do manage to clarify the facts later in the article.

tim

I'm older than 40% of Americans? That's unbelievably depressing.

/born during the Carter administration

David R.

I agree with November. 40% have never lived without a Bush or Clinton in the White House, and that number will only increase if the entities that select the president install Hillary.

Matt

The reporter says 40%, and in the same paragraph noes that he defines "in the White House" to mean POTUS or Veep. I've said the same thing myself--surely you can find worse examples of reporters fudging things (or, like Scott Thomas Beauchamp in The New Republic, making things up wholesale).

Mike

That's why I didn't vote for Bush in 1992 - I figured, my gosh, we've already had 8 years of this guy! Does he want to be the next FDR or something?

Georgia

It's strange, though, because the New Yorker is has one of the most stringent, famed fact-checking departments. Which makes me think of the Freakonomic concept that the "second-tier glamour" publishing industry is like a crack gang -- you get paid very little when you first get in, with so many people wanting to get to the top. So perhaps the New Yorker fact checkers weren't the economics majors, who are presumably able to be junior level i-bankers with their skill set...

zoe

On a related note, I've always hated those "Don't Be a Statistic" campaigns. You can't help but be one: if you're not part of the positive, you're part of the negative.

Brian

Considering the volume of real abuses or misuses of statistics that are out there, I have to admit that I'm baffled by the focus on this, apparently accurate, item.

I suppose you could argue that including the Bush VP years at all is a bit beside the point, but considering the explanation of the measurement used is explicit and prominent and the figures are accurate, I just can't bring myself to be bothered by this one.

Dan

In Response to Comment #4

I was actually suprised buy how high the %'s were. 1 in 4000 chance of having something left behind seems pretty bad.
Also, I believe Toyota is six sigma, which is less than 3.4 errors / 1 million chances or 00.00034%, so they would tear their arms out if they were at 00.04%.

Robert

A lot of people don't realize this, but 44% of statistics are completely made-up in order to support a point.

Alec

Fuzzy math indeed...There were 900,000 fewer 20-24 year olds in 2001 then there were 25-29 year olds in 2006 according to the Census bureau.

JSN

For what it is worth 7% of the population was born before the end of prohibition but most of them were too young to remember anything about it.

Steve

I read this several weeks ago, but in the orignal article by Benac, it wasn't GWB vice presidency, but the potential for an 8-year presicency of either Jeb Bush or another George Bush (Jeb's son?), who hass already started his political career.

Mike

Hertzberg is not exactly a journalist - he was a speech writer for Jimmy Carter and is a (usually) partisan columnist.

Also, when he says 40% of Americans have never known a time without a Bush or a Clinton in the White House, it is clear that he is including George Senior's turn as vice president. He says "in the White House," not "in the Oval Office." It may be a little ambiguous, but on first read I thought about it and was certain that was what he meant.

ZBicyclist

Roughly 100% of the population has had nothing but white males in the presidency during their lifetime.

Has fatigue set in there? ;)