We’re Not as Bad as Others (Or: Lies, Damn Lies and Rubbery Figures)




High school statistics students are usually warned of some of the ways that statistics can be misused. One of these ways is to falsely label axes. For example, a famous case was an advertisement during a US presidential election purporting to show how the American dollar had lost half of its value. This fact was trued, however, a picture of the dollar before and after the inflation was given to show the proportionate change. What was done was the original dollar was halved both in length and in width. This meant that the area of the smaller figure was a quarter of the larger figure, grossly exaggerating the apparent change in value.

Another common technique when somebody wants to exaggerate a small change, for example, in share market prices, is as follows. Suppose the Australian dollar relative to the US dollar had changed from $1.1 to $1.3, then a normal graph, which starts with $0.0 on the axis, would show this as a very small change. However, if you change the axis so that it starts at $1.0, then the graph looks like there is a very huge change in value of the dollar.

Out of consideration for the fact that most high school students have not become totally cynical about the world, some of the other ways of fudging statistics are usually not covered. On the assumption that the reader is an adult, a couple of techniques used can be covered. One example is to change a definition of a factor being studied to suit the purposes of a particular viewpoint. An example of this is suppose unemployment amongst under-25s was 20% and unemployment amongst 25-35-year-olds is 10%, then a little fudging can make it look like “youth unemployment” is less than it really is. This is simply done by changing the definition of “youth” from under-25 to under-35, thus reducing the apparent “youth unemployment” from 20% to 15% in one fell swoop. Many readers will recognize this type of thing as currently used by most of the world’s politicians.

Another way of manipulating statistical studies is to make comparisons with other things that are not truly related in any functional manner. The farcical example turns up in critiques of medical statistical research whereby it can be shown that the correlation between wearing size-8 shoes and developing bone cancer is greater than for any other factor. A rational person, of course, would not conclude that wearing size-8 shoes caused bone cancer. Not so, the theological statisticians who are primed to present “evidence” to the royal commission.

Recently, a study was commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (formerly the New York cop training centre) to examine race and characteristics of the sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. That is a bit like tobacco companies commissioning a report on the link between smoking and cancer.

Some indication of the potential biased attitude can be taken by a couple of notes concerning the leading person behind that commissioning, Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League in the US. Amongst his many provocative statements can be included that …

  • Hollywood is “controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity
  • President Obama “supports selective infanticide
  • Progressive Catholics are “termites”

In his recent book, Why Catholicism Matters, the New York Times reports that he, “gives us the defense counsel’s version of the Crusades (a natural response to Islamic jihad) and the Inquisition (never mind the torture, secular authorities did the heretic burning)”. In the book, he sums up the cover-up of predatory priests with the classic statement: “mistakes were made.”

One of the findings of the study purports to be that Catholic priests do not abuse children at any greater rate than the general public and indeed less than in other Christian churches. He gets to this point with a nifty trick. He re-defines paedophiles as being those who prey on children under the age of 11. Those who prey on children between 11 and 14 are deemed to be “hebephiles”, with a further categorization of those who abuse children between the age of 14 and 17 as being “ephebophiles”. This is analogous to redefining youth unemployment, as mentioned above. Given that ¾ of identified victims were between the ages of 11 and 17, the rate of “paedophiles” (that is, under 11) is greatly reduced.

When comparing the rates of abuse in the Catholic Church with other organisations, he plays the inappropriate relationship of the type shoes/cancer outlined above. While claiming that only 4% of Catholic priests were paedophiles, he then goes on to say that 10% of Protestant clergy were involved in sexual misconduct. What is failed to be mentioned is that that category of “sexual misconduct” included relationships with other adults.

Another method, but fortunately the easiest for people to see through, is when conclusions are drawn without any figures to back them up. Given that the rest of the report is loaded with lots and lots of numbers, people tend to assume that there are numbers to back it up but they’ve just not been mentioned. For example, the report states that “While we were not able to find specific numbers concerning the prevalence of child abuse” in other institutions, a conclusion is made that it is no greater in the Catholic Church.

On another occasion, the report poses the question: “Did abuse occur simply because somebody said it happened?” It then gives the response: “The clear and simple answer to this question is ‘no’.” This statement is immediately followed by another statement that: “although we do not know the exact percentage of false reports.” To compound the blatant abuse of academic process, the report concludes with: “In fact while we don’t know exactly how often [children] lie about being sexually abused, research [not cited] shows that those numbers are above zero [whatever that means].”

We can expect the Donohue line of attack to surface during the royal commission and probably by groups other than the Catholic Church.

In an analogy with the tobacco companies example, the true motives behind the research is shown by an interview in the New York Times with Laurie Goodstein, where Donahue says that in the past the Catholic Church, “Has been too quick to write a check” to individuals who report being victimized by paedophile priests. He said that he believed that the church should fight each case, “one by one”. Finally, he said the words that will probably be reported in history books one day, that Catholic bishops should, “toughen up and go out and buy some good lawyers to get tough in the fight against victims of abuse. We don’t need alter boys.”

Read more here:



TOMORROW: The Ellis defence

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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