Intelligent Design

On the Really Stupid Use of Statistics to Support an Ideological Assault on Common Sense

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Over at Vox they are covering a story about a tenured mediocrity at Berkeley named M. Steven Fish.  File this one under “some things are just so stupid, it takes a lot of education to believe them.”  Fish’s thesis is that contrary to conventional wisdom, Muslim’s are less violent than other religious adherents.  *Sigh*

At The Federalist David Harsanyi demolishes Fish’s thesis with a smattering of common sense.  The last paragraph caught my eye especially:

But if you truly believe all the world’s great religions are equally violent (“intrinsically” speaking) there is social experiment one could undertake to find out. A Vox reporter could walk around Washington DC or Dallas or Atlanta holding a sign that says “Jesus is a myth” and see what happens. And then that reporter could head to Medina or Karachi or Gaza City and do the same thing with a corresponding sign about Islam. Afterwards, let’s compare results.

I am old enough to remember the idiotic “moral equivalency” argument liberals used to make during the cold war.  The gist of the argument was that the United States was in no way a superior place to live than the Soviet Union.  All sorts of statistics were bandied about in support of the assertion, but the argument never survived an encounter with what I call the “wall argument,” which went something like this:  There is a wall along parts of the southern border of the United States.  There is also a wall along the border of the Soviet empire.  One keeps people in; the other keeps people out.  Here endeth the argument.

We’ve all heard the old saw about lies, damn lies and statistics.  When an argument strikes one as an ideologically-driven assault on common sense, it usually is, and very often there is a wall argument that will bring it down with one swing of the axe.

UPDATE: No sooner had I written this, than I discovered this over at FT:

During the Cold War, especially its early stages, the books written in defense of the Soviet model fairly bristled with statistics. Wisely, the West’s more effective defenders did not attempt to refute tractor-production figures from the Ukraine with tractor-production figures from Moline, Illinois. They made more fundamental points, like the difficulty of collecting accurate statistics in a police state, or the conclusiveness with which even accurate statistics are trumped by the brute fact of mass starvation.

At a more Kirkian level of abstraction, there were such simple observations as: Our people are free, yours are not; we produce poetry, you produce propaganda; our cities are beautiful, yours are hideous. The equivalent arguments in the modern context might be (1) no amount of creative accounting will convince a sane person that you have made a money-saver out of a vast new entitlement like Obamacare; (2) no study could ever refute the fact that character is both a cause and a casualty of government-subsidized poverty; and (3) I will listen to econometricians as soon as you show me one that can write with more fluency than a high school sophomore.

6 Replies to “On the Really Stupid Use of Statistics to Support an Ideological Assault on Common Sense

  1. 1
    News says:

    To the extent that anyone is less violent than anyone else, a couple of things come to mind, for this person, who just writes news here:

    To what extent are people legally free to be violent? In some places, women can legally be stoned to death for (alleged) adultery. If that happened in Canada, all convicted perps would be serving a VERY long prison sentence. But no mob would drag them through the streets in the meantime.

    Some people just don’t behave that way. It is all just yada yada yatter until the keys on some people’s cells clink.

    Maybe the perps guess then that women in some places do have civil rights. Girls are not so fungible in those places.

    (But we don’t care whether they get it or not, as long as they are off the streets, okay?)

    Which leads me to ask, what do we even mean when we talk about violence?

    Saudi Arabia has carried out a sentence of 50 of one thousand sentenced lashes on some liberal journalist.

    The witness said Raif Badawi’s feet and hands were shackled during the flogging but his face was visible. He remained silent and did not cry out, said the witness, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity fearing government reprisal.

    His family are currently living in Canada. Thank heaven. At least some people here would care, though government social workers are disgustingly dedicated to political correctness (“It’s their culture ” , see?).

    But why is Saudi Arabia’s ambassador welcome in any country that claims to support a free news media? Does he dine at the White House? Who would that honestly surprise? If you are an American, shouldt you not consider that type of government more fungible than Badawi is?

    I can’t wait to hear what the new atheist commenters are going to say about this. How that guy deserved his fate? How wrong we are for bringing this up? For calling you out for the cowards you in fact are?

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  2. 2
    Mung says:

    And then that reporter could head to Medina or Karachi or Gaza City and do the same thing with a corresponding sign about Islam.

    Such as? What would such a sign say?

  3. 3
    polistra says:

    “and do the same thing with a corresponding sign about Islam. Afterwards, let’s compare results.”

    Within the bounds of that experiment, there’s no question about the difference in response. But there’s a category error in generalizing from that situation to just plain “violence”.

    Islam and MODERN Christianity are not the same type of category. Islam is a religion AND a system of government. Modern X’ty is at most a religion, more often just an empty building.

    Muslims defend their religion (AND STATE, all the same thing) fiercely.

    Modern Westerners defend their STATE fiercely, which often means defending anti-religion fiercely. Look at the West’s multi-front lethal aggression against Russia lately, all because Putin dared to insult our gay antigods.

  4. 4
    Robert Byers says:

    Its about curves in graphs. Islam doesn’t make one violent more then other faiths except true christianity which prohibits injust violence,
    its still very few that are evil and small percentages that agree with evil.
    the real test is to say things people don’t like, with a sign, and see what happens.
    most of the PC things today would get one hurt on the street.
    indeed any hostility to homosexuality will get hatred and possibly hurt.
    its just a different list . In some backward third world countries there is the severe punishment but punishment is here too. Just not so bad or from the government.
    whats the remedy?
    are we actually more free and have free speech/conclusions?
    Yes but only in a curve.
    Muslims are in large numbers in nations one never hears about.
    There is not a moral equality but this concept can go farther then with muslims.
    The problems we have with the Muslim folks is from a liberal establishment and some other reasons crossing all political factions.

    By the way the comment about the whipped Muslim journalist family being in CANADA indicates there must be a belief that there are ones who deserve and will aid Canada.! In fact I’m sure they would let in not just the whipped but the whippers. Thats a liberal establishment.
    Relative to human history problems with islam folks today is chump change and much ado about nothing.
    they have killed few of us in reality. In fact a few months of the Korean war saw more killings of us by Chinese and North Koreans.
    Who is worse?

  5. 5
    velikovskys says:

    News:
    But why is Saudi Arabia’s ambassador welcome in any country that claims to support a free news media? Does he dine at the White House? Who would that honestly surprise? If you are an American, shouldt you not consider that type of government more fungible than Badawi is?

    50% of world’s oil reserves and as a counter balance to Shite power, the moral equation is the ends justify the means as it has always been.

  6. 6
    Me_Think says:

    Statistics be damned. I have to agree with Barry on this one.

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