Lies, Danged Lies, and…Percentages?!

percentagesAs a person focused on the “truth to data” realm, I find it somewhat frustrating (sometimes amusing, but often frustrating) that there are writers that feel that throwing in a statistic (small “s”) in their articles somehow bring to bear the force of data to make their point.  Such was an article in the Baltimore Sun on 12 February 2017 that started with “An overwhelming 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real and that human activity is responsible” (“Fake news may be vulnerable to ‘vaccination'” by Sean Greene).  The irony is that the article was about “fake news.”  Although the writing was excellent, Mr. Greene missed the point entirely with his first sentence.  There are so many questions I have concerning where he got he 97% figure.

  1.  How many is 97%?
  2.  How many are the 3% that are remaining?
  3.  What research is associated with the 97%?  When was their most current research concerning climate change published?

These are just three of the questions that I asked myself while I tracked down the study generally mentioned by Mr. Greene in his article (he cited the study as being from the Pew Research Center report).  I found a study on the Pew Research Center website (http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/public-views-on-climate-change-and-climate-scientists/) and looked through the article, trying to find the 97% figure mentioned in the quote above anywhere in the article.  I was unsuccessful in finding this figure.  I did find a quote that said “a Pew Research Center survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) found 93% of members with a Ph.D. in Earth sciences (and 87% of all members) say the Earth is warming mostly because of human behavior.”  Again, how many is 93%?  Well I looked at the membership of the AAAS and found that they have no membership figures on their outward facing site, so I had to look at Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Association_for_the_Advancement_of_Science) and found that they have 120,000 members.  What this means is that 8400 members (7%) of the AAAS do not agree with the 111,600 members that say that warming is the result of human behavior.  This is something to consider in the long run, especially since 8400 is not a small number of scientists.  The hilarious (read frustrating) part of the entire newspaper article was that the quote at the beginning of the article was used during a survey conducted to show that people are easily manipulated through something as innocuous as  a pie chart with the above quote.  Why sure people are manipulated through pie charts!  They are also manipulated by percentages given in various articles.  (For instance, I read recently that software attacks of cell phones of a particular brand increased 163% in one month!  Would you buy that brand of cell phone?!)

I think that we ALL need to be careful of where we use data and then try to rationalize that use with a reference that can be “pre-bunked” (using a term from Mr. Greene’s article).  I actually agree with many of the suppositions that Mr. Greene wrote in his article, I just think that using data without the raw numbers is the same as saying that 100% of the writers of this blog do not agree with using percentages without backing it up with raw numbers.  Does that make you want to get more numbers to understand the percentages?  Would you like a pie chart?  I thought not.

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