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Writing Better Articles, Tip #2: Beware Misleading Statistics

Statistics can been used to persuade people to believe in an idea especially when the statistic is combined with fear. Yet, some statistics are misleading or exaggerated, even in leading publications. As bloggers, we should be careful in understanding what the statistic really means by asking the question, Why?

For example, a leading newspaper once reported that the average college undergraduate student loan has increased from $12,100 to $19,130, up nearly 58% in the past decade. However, 1/2 of the increase is related to basic inflation which is also reflected in higher starting salaries, which help to pay off the higher loans. So, the statistic is correct, yet misleading. The article could have said the average college loan has increased by 29%, after reflecting inflation, over the past decade. Yet, this may not have caught the readers’ attention (and fear) as much.

In addition, some statistics relating to cause and effect can be due to a coincidence or to a weak/strong correlation. For example, we can find (and quote) a statistic that poverty is tied to poor academic achievement. So, a reader may think that money will solve the achievement problem. For this example only, let’s assume that the modeling of parents’ behaviors are really the primary factor that leads to both poverty and to their children’s poor academic achievement.

Thus, the coincidence between poverty and poor education achievement would mislead the reader when the attention should be on behavior. As bloggers, we should ask why is the statistic the way it is, in order to uncover the real issue. This way our readers can address the real issues instead of focusing their energy on coincidences.

Pete blogs at My Financial Awareness and has worked for over 15 years as an actuary.