Impressive but Deceptive Statistics

I just washed the dishes, which I had let accumulate over three or four days. That sounds a lot worse than it is; when you live alone, that doesn’t represent many dishes.

The first day I started aMMusing, I declared dishwashing an evil activity because it is SO boring that it lets my mind wander off into the most trivial musings. Today’s session was no exception.

For whatever reason, I was thinking about the statistics gathered by FOX News (what a joke!) that got a lot of airplay just before the war on Iraq, namely that “71 percent of Americans support using U.S. forces to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and 20 percent oppose.” That was certainly an impressive figure, but like all percentages, it hid absolute numbers. And the figures themselves lost their credibility when we found out the poll was conducted with only “900 registered voters nationwide.” Even the not-particularly-math-inclined guy that I am remembers from his 1988 “Introduction to Probability and Statistics” class that it takes at least 1,024 participants for a survey to be reasonably significant statistically.

Notwithstanding that we can’t tell who those 900 survey participants were, let’s allow these percentages to be correct. Let’s just take the 20% figure (i.e., those who were in opposition to the war at the time) and not even consider the remaining 9%. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “the resident population of the United States, projected to 5/27/2003 at 4:58:04 PM EDT is 291,079,637.” Twenty percent of that number would be 58,215,927.

Now THAT is an impressive number! That’s a lot of people no matter how you look at it! And correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that more than (or at least within spitting distance of) the number of Americans who actually voted for GWB in 2000? If so, what would it take to get that group of 58+ million to shed its political apathy and cast its ballots against GWB in 2004?

Oddly, I find twisting the numbers used to downplay the opposition in the U.S. highly amusing. And somewhat comforting, too. Yet it speaks volume to the U.S.’s importance in the world that I, a non-U.S. resident or citizen, should even care about this.

And yes, all of this because I just washed the dishes.