Creating a new generation of data to solve social problems.
This post originally appeared in Fast Company. Read the full article here.
President Obama decisively won re-election on Tuesday and almost immediately the questions started rolling in. Those on the right couldn’t comprehend how a president could be re-elected with such unprecedentedly bad economic numbers: the unemployment rate when he took office was 7.8%; and today we’re still sitting at that same miserable 7.8%. Those on the left were equally incredulous that so many Americans couldn’t see the progress right in front of them. President Obama has been steering a slow recovery, they say, taking us from 10% unemployment in his first term to 7.8% today.
But wait, both those sets of statistics can’t be true: We can’t be simultaneously stagnant and improving. But they’re both correct, it just depends which start date you choose. And that is precisely how both parties manipulated statistics during this election to set their preferred narrative, and sewed confusion in the minds of millions of voters.
Statistic manipulation is hardly a new trend. Every election cycle is jam-packed with contradictory data and inconsistent indicators. Mark Twain reserved special ire for the type of lie that is statistics. But in the struggle to define the narrative of the last four years--triumph or tragedy--stats have taken a particularly hard hit in the past few months.
There are two classic sins of data manipulation that were at work in this campaign: The first is that the Obama and Romney campaigns used different metrics, scales, and data points to discuss their respective track records and plans for the future, making it nearly impossible to compare apples to apples. The second is that both camps used metrics that lack context and relevance.
The debate over the two candidates’ energy policies (which involved both men trying to brag about how much oil they wanted to drill) highlights the first sin nicely: President Obama defended his record on domestic oil production by saying, “We’ve built enough [oil] pipeline to wrap around the entire Earth once.” Governor Romney responded that oil production is down 14% on federal land this year, and that gas production was down 9% due to the President’s cuts on licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and waters. But what does it all mean? Why are we comparing miles of pipelines circumnavigating the Earth to oil production on federal lands? If the goal is to figure out whether we’re becoming more energy independent why aren’t we comparing the ratio of domestic oil production to international imports between 2008 and 2012?
Context is also critical to understanding the truth behind the data. For instance, Mitt Romney took to claiming that the actual unemployment rate is 11%--which would be the rate if labor-force participation hadn’t declined over the last four years, something he attributes to the failure of Obama’s policies. That claim earned him two Pinocchios from the Washington Post, on account of context. What was that context? Demographic trends like the retirement of baby boomers are estimated to be responsible for over half of the decline in the labor-force participation rate, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.