Statistics: Figures Can Lie, and Liars Can Figure

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

There is an old saw that is often used to denounce statistical analyses of all kinds: “Figures can lie, and liars can figure.” Statistics can be very useful in all kinds of ways; you can’t run a manufacturing operation quality assurance program (something I spent decades doing) without it. But statistics can be manipulated, and people with a political agenda (see, e.g., California Governor Gavin Newsom) are often quite adept at cherry-picking data. The effort here is not to look at data to drive policy decision-making but instead to dishonestly select data and how data is gathered, to support a pre-determined policy conclusion.


In response, Democrats and their supporters have tried to turn the tables on the GOP by noting that gun violence is highest in Republican states: “Gun Violence Worse in Red States. It’s Not Even Close,” a headline in Politico proclaimed;  “Red States Have Higher Gun Death Rates Than Blue States,” Forbes reported.

The conflicting storylines underscore how various data sets and definitions can be used to politicize and spin the problem of violent crime in the U.S., proving again Mark Twain’s caution about “lies, damned lies and statistics.” Depending on the framing, accurate sets of numbers can be assembled to tell starkly different stories about mass shootings, school shootings, and the overall correlation between gun ownership and gun violence.

The fact is, you’re much more likely to be hit by lightning than to die in a mass shooting. Don’t get me wrong; every such instance is a tragedy, which to my thinking makes it even more egregious when people lie about the occurrences of these things to try to drive their agenda.

Continue digging, and you find:

While the murder rates in Trump counties in the states Trump won are only slightly higher than those in Trump counties in states Biden won, the Biden counties in Trump states had an 83% higher murder than in Biden states. This may say more about law enforcement and demographics than it does about state gun control laws. 

For example, African Americans commit half the murders in the United States, though they comprise only 13.6% of the population. The counties that Biden won have almost four times the percentage of black voters. That gap is even larger in the counties in the states that Trump carried than the states that Biden carried. 

Breaking out large counties with over 100,000 people, which is where 88% of murders in the U.S. occur, shows a similar, though even more extreme, difference. The murder rate data for counties that Biden won is much higher than for those that Trump won. 


The significance of this is enormous.

Statistics won’t make me give this up. (Credit: Ward Clark)

It’s clear from this piece that the analysis of murder rates at the county level tells a much different picture than those at the state level. That’s telling, as crime is generally handled at the municipal or county level, rarely at the state or Federal level; therefore, the appropriate level at which to examine that data is at the county level. And an analysis of murder rates at the county level paints a much different picture than Governor Newsom would have us believe. What’s worse, a significant number of jurisdictions aren’t even reporting crime data.

Comprehensive FBI data depends on law enforcement agencies’ (there are about 18,000 in the U.S.) voluntary submissions. This year about 7,000 police agencies, covering about 35% of the U.S. population, were missing.

Bear in mind also that when you hear a leftist toss out the term “gun deaths,” they are generally including suicides, which in some places are up to seventy percent of deaths by firearms. Suicides, again, are tragic, but that is a mental health issue, not a law enforcement issue.

The politicians touting these fallacious data pulls are doing so deliberately, cynically, and dishonestly, not to improve public safety but to drive a political agenda while covering up the very real failings of leftist district attorneys and judges. The political agenda is the disarmament of the law-abiding while simultaneously making excuses for criminal behavior. It’s another example of the simplest calculation in politics: “We need to do something. This is something. Let’s do this!”


And here’s the real problem: Because the left is so focused on blaming the sword for the hand that wields it, we may be overlooking policy solutions that might actually work.


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