Author: Lori Alden
Audience: High school
and college economics students
this series of 12 puzzles, you can help your students become more
discriminating consumers of economic statistics.
Procedure: Each of the following
one or more misleading statistics. See if your students can figure
out why they're misleading.
The following statistics suggest that 16-year-olds are safer drivers
than people in their twenties, and that octogenarians are very
safe. Is this true?
No. As the following graph shows, the reason 16-year-old and
octogenarians appear to be safe drivers is that they don't drive nearly
as much as people in other age groups.
2. On November 13, 2000, Newsweek published the following poll
9% said that Nader was the only candidate worth voting for, one would
have expected him to get at least 9% of the vote in the 2000 election.
He only got about 3%. What
There was a biased statistic because the
wasn't randomly drawn from the population.
A disproportionate number of Nader supporters participated in the poll in
order to make him appear more viable as a candidate.
3. Consider these complaints about airlines published in US
News and World Report on February 5, 2001:
we conclude that United, American, and Delta are the worst airlines and
Alaska, Southwest, and Continental are the best?
No. The airlines that had the most complaints also had the most
passengers. As the following graph shows, rates and percentages
are often more informative than raw numbers.
4. The following statistics about motorcycle helmet use seem to
suggest that helmets cause more injuries and fatalities. Is it
really safer to go without helmets?
Source: Motorcycle Statistical Annual, Motorcycle
Industry Council, Inc., 1994, as reported on http://www.bikersrights.com/statistics/stats.html.
Solution: Correlation doesn't prove causation. The
statistics suggest that helmets cause accidents and fatalities, but it's
possible that a high number of motorcycle accidents and fatalities in
high-risk states caused them to adopt mandatory helmet laws.
5. This clipping from US News and World Report on 1/29/01
suggests that Alaskans are terrible parents. Is this true?
The difference in the abuse rates probably stems from different
definitions for abuse in the various states. For example, Alaska
(the "worst" state) says that a child is abused if his or her
health or welfare is harmed or threatened. Pennsylvania (the
"best" state) defines it as a recent act or failure to act.
Columnist George Will wrote in the Washington Post in 1993 that
"... the 10 states with the lowest per pupil spending included four
— North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah — among the 10 states
with the top SAT scores ... New Jersey has the highest per pupil
expenditures, an astonishing $10,561… [Its] rank regarding SAT scores?
negative correlation between spending per pupil and SAT performance
seems to be borne out by this graph:
And by this one:
mean that spending more on education makes students worse off?
The results are more likely due to differing SAT participation rates in the
states (Colleges in North Dakota and other states require the ACT rather
than the SAT for college admissions). The students who take the
SAT in North Dakota include many who plan to apply to elite out-of-state
This caused a sampling bias, since
wasn't representative of the population.
7. Researchers (Arthur Kellermann et. al., "Gun Ownership as a
Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home," The New England Journal of
Medicine, October 7, 1993, pp. 1084-1091), found that gun owners are 2.7
times more likely to be murdered than non-owners. Does this mean
it's safer to not have guns in the house?
Solution: Perhaps, but correlation does not imply
causation. It may be true that guns cause murders, but it might
also be true that having a greater risk of being murdered causes people
to own guns.
8. "The best public schools offer a more challenging
curriculum than most private schools." Are public schools
therefore better than private schools?
Solution: We're being asked to compare apples with
oranges: the best public schools versus most private schools.
9. "Fluoride consumption by human beings increases the
general cancer death rate. …. [P]eople in fluoridated
areas have a higher cancer death rate than those in non-fluoridated
areas." Should fluoridation be prohibited?
Solution: Affluent areas are more likely to have
fluoridation and they're also more likely to have older populations who
are more likely to get cancer.
10. Can we conclude from the following diagram that it's safer
to drive while under the influence?
Solution: No. Drunk
drivers have a fatality risk 7.66 times the norm, while non-drunk
drivers have a risk only about .6 of the norm. Only a very small percentage of drivers in New York City drive while under the
influence, but they account for a disproportionate number of accidents.
Labor Review published the following data, showing how earnings vary with education:
conclude that getting a bachelor's degree will increase your earnings by
almost $13,000 a year?
Not necessarily. Intelligence and drive also explain the
differences in earnings, people with intelligence and drive are more
likely to go to college.
Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense
Council, wrote that "a well-run curbside recycling program
can cost anywhere from $50 to more than $150 per ton of materials
collected. Typical trash collection and disposal programs, on the other
hand, cost anywhere from $70 to more than $200 per ton." Does
recycling save money?
Hershkowitz asks us to compare apples with oranges: a well-run
curbside recycling program with typical trash collection and disposal
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