Manipulative statistics and pseudoscience

Written by: Stefan Janjić

Common sense is our strongest ally when it comes to combating disinformation, but we should be particularly careful with data since numbers, quotes, methodology, samples, sources, statistics – they can easily convince you that a lie is in fact the truth.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”, British writer Benjamin Disraeli said. This aphorism goes nicely with a local joke about one-half of people eating meat, the other half eating cabbage, thus on average they eat meat-cabbage rolls. Joking aside, statistics can provide very useful information and comparisons. It may point out societal relationships, level of equality, price trends, population growth, economic development, and so on. However, trusting statistics blindly is a big trap to fall into, because numbers and graphics – as long as they appear to be rational – can easily be taken out of context and presented in a manipulative manner.

Look at this graph showing a success of four companies on the market:

Those who casually glance at the graph could come to the conclusion that company A is very much superior because it is represented by a tall bar and a bright red colour. However, if we look into details, we see that the difference between companies A and B is only 0.2%. Thus, even if the numbers are correct, the manipulative creation of the graph itself can be deliberately misleading.

Let’s look at the second graph, which shows the ratings of four students:

If we are not careful enough, we might conclude that student A performed twice as well as student C. However, is that really true? Look at the scale again and notice that it only covers a value between 4.7 and 5.0. If we set the scale to match the real score ranging from 1 to 5, we will see that the differences are far less substantial and actually excellent results are shown. Of course, student A is undoubtedly the best, but not that much better than the C student, as implied by the previous graph.

Combining manipulated statistics is pseudoscience on which a large number of conspiracy theorists and profiteers rely upon today is particularly concerning. For instance, local media has repeatedly announced an asteroid impact that will cause the end of the world, or has passed on unfounded evidence that Earth is flat. We often read about “medical discoveries” that a certain fruit juice, or even baking soda, is a cure for cancer, or that there is a magical recipe for cooked eggplant for arthritis treatment. Fact-checking portal categorises such news published by media throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina as “Pseudoscience”.

Common sense is our strongest ally when it comes to combating disinformation, but the task is more complex when we read about that issues and staff that are not so familiar to us. Be honest with yourself, and evaluate whether you have enough knowledge to fully understand, for example, the story of experimental research in the pharmaceutical field. If the answer is negative, does it mean that you must avoid articles on this subject? No. Just do not take it for granted, especially if it concerns your health and finances. Even if such news seems appealing because it contains the hint of a solution to your problems, check the sources, consider the arguments presented, and in the end always consult your doctor or pharmacist.

In conclusion, whenever you encounter information that seems suspicious but which is supported by numbers and graphs, or quotes research, open up your eyes, because one of the basic tricks of manipulation is to persuade you, by apparently rational means, that a lie is actually the truth.

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