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Damned Lies – Putting data in context

MTP Unemployment Rate US Nov 2011

In 1894, one Doctor M Price referred at a gathering to “the proverbial kinds of falsehoods, ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics'”. Zeitgeist was enrolled on a stats course back at uni. Zeitgeist grudgingly took said stats course. Zeitgeist does not like dealing with arbitrary integers. Numbers become imbued with meaning once they are put in the context of reality, not when they are being discussed in a lecture hall. Statistical analysis can help shed light on many things. Sometimes, however, they not only fail to tell the whole truth, they mask a reality.

Prima facie, this graph, shown this past Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, looks like good news for President Obama; the country’s unemployment rate dropped below 9% for the first time since April of 2009. So employment is dropping. How can this be anything but a good thing? Unfortunately, as an editorial this past weekend in The New York Times points out, “the new figures reveal more about the depth of distress in the job market than about real improvement in job prospects”. The editorial continues, stating that “most of the decline” in last month’s figures were because 315,000 people dropped out of the work force, “a reflection of extraordinarily weak demand by employers for new workers”. So what looks initially like cheerful news is in fact worrying and hopeless. It’s enough to make you reach for a stats textbook.

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