Lies, damn lies, and statistics

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." - Benjamin Disraeli

Last night a guy on TV told me a damn lie. This is the kind of lie that doesn't, at first glance, look like a lie at all. The damn lie the TV told me was that a certain brand of vitamin/nutritional supplement would keep me from getting heart attacks. That, of course, is not what the ad actually said, but it is what it implied and wanted me to believe.

What the ad actually said was that "studies suggest that [the product] may help to reduce the risk of heart disease." This statement is so riddled with uncertainty that it is meaningless. It promises nothing. It doesn't say that these unnamed studies prove anything about the product (we don't even know if it was the product being studied). It doesn't say who did the studies or whether they were accepted as valid by the health care community; they could as well have been done by the guy in the mail room of the company selling the product. Citing "studies" is meant to make us think that there is some experimental evidence behind the hype. The rest of the statement tells us that even if the "studies" are valid, they don't hold out much hope. The product only "may" have any affect at all (what is the probability that it will? 10%? 50%?), and if it does have an affect, it will only "help to reduce the risk" (help how? Reduce the risk by how much? What risk?).

Another ad proudly stated that a certain brand of skin cream "may help to reduce the appearance of fine lines" on the skin. A good coat of plaster definitely will obliterate the deepest fissures in the skin! Yet another skin cream ad said that 80% of the women who used it saw an effect, and an astonishing 60% saw an improvement. Wow! Great odds! At the roulette table, anyway...

Advertisers, politicians, lawyers, used car salesmen... damn liars, all of them. They lie by telling us only part of the truth; they lie by misdirection; they lie by using twisty weasel words to imply the opposite of what they are actually saying. We are lied to so continuously that we don't even notice anymore. We expect the lies, we are used to the lies, the lies wash over us and immerse us, maybe the lies even comfort us. Do you trust your political leaders? Do you trust the guy trying to sell you something? Who do you trust?

The best weapon against the liars is skepticism. Blind trust is dangerous for the individual, fatal to society. Question everything!


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