Lying with statistics?

Slashdot recently ran a story on why so many tech workers dislike their jobs.  The article links to a survey by TinyPulse, a company that measures employee engagement.  The thrust of the article was that people in IT are less happy and engaged in their jobs than their fellow employees in other departments. 

The article itself was somewhat interesting.  They showed a number of graphs that showed IT pros reporting reduced engagement as compared to people in other departments.  However, in looking at the graphs and the numbers, I got the distinct impression that somebody at TinyPulse was trying to pump up business by manufacturing a crisis.  For example, consider this screenshow of the graph (captured 2015-09-21):

This is the first graph in the article and the way it's shown is literally straight out How to Lie with Statistics.  No, seriously - read the book.  One of the ways to lie that it discusses is to use a bar graph with a discontinuous scale.  In this case, the horizantal axis appears to start at about 17%, which is why the bar on the right is about three times as tall as the one on the left, even though it only represents a 3% difference.

To their credit, TinyPulse didn't do that with any of the other graphs in the report, so maybe it was just a garden-variety screw-up.  It fould just be that somebody pushed the wrong button in the graph-generation tool and the result got pushed out.  Who knows?  You'd think a company that does statistics as part of its core business would be a little more careful, but hey, things like that happen.

The problem is that when you notice something like that, it immediately puts you on your guard and makes you suspicious of the rest of the data. Of course, that's assuming you know to look for it, which most people probably don't.  And that's the beauty of lying with statistics - you don't have to actually lie.  Why risk an out-and-out lie when you can just be careful in your presentation and trust that the vast majority of the people will draw the conclusion you want them to draw rathen than the one that's actually supported by the presented data?

You can reply to this entry by leaving a comment below. You can send TrackBack pings to this URL. This entry accepts Pingbacks from other blogs. You can follow comments on this entry by subscribing to the RSS feed.

Add your comments #

A comment body is required. No HTML code allowed. URLs starting with http:// or ftp:// will be automatically converted to hyperlinks.