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How to lie with statistics: Job losses, women, and presidential candidates

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | April 12, 2012

In case anyone hasn’t heard yet, yesterday apparent Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney rolled out his argument for the women’s vote in November. And it was a doozy: 92.3% of jobs losses during the Obama presidency belonged to women. 92.3%! Can you believe it???!!

Well, no. You can’t.

Not that the numbers are made up. The calculation is technically precise.

But here’s where this gets interesting: while precise, the number gives an impression that is fundamentally inaccurate.

Explaining why, though, is challenging because to understand it, you need to be able to follow not just the raw math, but the context that makes this “statistic” misleading.

NPR provides the clearest explanation. The Romney campaign uses numbers comparing jobs today and jobs in January 2009, when Barack Obama was inaugurated. NPR’s Scott Horsley explained:

the U.S. economy has actually been adding jobs for the last year and a half, but we’re still not back to the point where we were in January of 2009, when President Obama took office. We’re still about 740,000 jobs short.

Now, if you just look at the number of women who are working today, that’s down about 683,000 from where it was in January of ’09. If you divide 683 into 740 that is 92 percent…

So that means the Romney campaign is telling the truth, right?

Sorry: no.

The Romney campaign is trying to use statistics– a startling, even unlikely statistic– to persuade women that Barack Obama has been bad for us. As the redoubtable Ezra Klein notes, the statistic he is fighting here is a different one: a 19 point gap in women’s preferences if the presidential race were held today, in favor of Obama over Romney.

Basically, the argument is, we’ll see your 19 and raise you 92.

So how might we actually assess differences in men’s and women’s employment experiences during this most recent downturn?

First, let’s acknowledge that politicians have less influence then they might want you to believe during a campaign– especially presidents, who must enlist congress in support of any policy initiative. Giving them credit or blame for the way an economy sheds jobs may help a campaign find a startling number, but it is unlikely to reflect real policy directions, let alone gender politics.

Quoting Horsley again, by January 2009

the economy had already lost some four and a half million jobs. And those job losses were disproportionately among men.

Does that mean Barack Obama’s predecessor, George Bush, was anti-male? Of course not. What it reflects is the way that men and women are distributed in the work force. The first sectors affected by this recession, construction and manufacturing, were disproportionately male; recent job losses have been coming from parts of the economy where women make up a higher proportion of the work force.

Think teachers here.

So, what has happened to employment for men and women? let’s start measuring from the beginning of the recession, not from some arbitrary point.

According to the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler, counting from December 2007– which is when the recession began– the total job loss was 5 million jobs, 1.8 million of them previously held by women. That means 36% of job losses in this “great recession” were sustained by women.

Really, there should be no reason to even write about this claim. It is clearly political, and the number the Romney campaign came up with simply doesn’t match anyone’s lived experience– because what we all have seen is about two men losing jobs for every woman laid off.

But that number is getting repeated and repeated and repeated. And weirdly, the various news media cannot seem to find a way to say clearly that it is a lie.

So, for example, in its “Fact Checker” feature, the Washington Post writes

We cannot fault the RNC’s math, as the numbers add up… at this point we will give this statistic our rarely used label: TRUE BUT FALSE.

Ah, no. The numbers may add up; but the argument they are used to advance isn’t even the slightest bit true– it is entirely false.

I am not any happier with the fact-checking website Politifact, which rates the claim “Mostly False” and says

There is a small amount of truth to the claim, but it ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

“Ignoring critical facts that would give a different impression” is a very good paraphrase of a much simpler, old-fashioned word that applies here: “lying”.

How to Lie With Statistics is the title of a book that was required reading when I was an undergraduate taking statistics in the Sociology Department at Cornell University. Originally published in 1954, I find, it is still in print. Google Books offers access to the 1993 reprinting.

The good folks in the media might do well to read it as we launch into what promises to be a season of what the author, Darrell Huff, called “stasticulation”: “misinforming people by the use of statistical material”.

Huff titled his book harshly for a reason. As he explained,

whoever the guilty party may be in any instance, it is hard to give him the status of blundering innocent…As long as the errors remain one-sided, it is not easy to attribute them to bungling or accident.

Stasticulation season is upon us. And the media, unfortunately, are apparently unable to call it out when they see it. As Huff reminded us more than half a century ago:

The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify.

So when the Romney campaign trots out their claim that 92% of job losses were incurred by women, try this other statistic out, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

women actually make up a larger share of the workforce now than they did in Jan. 2008 before the financial meltdown, and since January 2009, it is a statistically insignificant change. In January 2008, women made up 48.8 percent of the workforce; in January 2009, 49.5 percent; now 49.3 percent.

If you can square these two “statistics”: women lost 92% of jobs but somehow stayed at close to 50% of those employed — then you don’t need to read How to Lie with Statistics. But judging from the coverage I have seen, we might all want to send copies to our favorite news media.

Comments to “How to lie with statistics: Job losses, women, and presidential candidates

  1. It all depends on what you believe 100% is. Let’s take Coca-Cola for instance. Coca-Cola say that a 3-liter bottle of Coca-Cola is 50% more than a 2-liter. In reality it is depending on whether you believe the 2-liter represents 100%. If you believe the 3-liter represents 100%, then the you only receive 33% more. In reality, you are only receiving 33% more no matter what.

    I really like the fact that the Berkley professor believe the federal government’s statistics. It’s really funny. Wonder if they lied?

    Can’t wait for the election in 13 days. It will tell whether I will be a pessimist or an opitmist for the next 4 years.

  2. I totally disagree with her facts. While more jobs have been added in some areas other areas have faced huge hits. I would like to see the statistics or jobs added per year minus the jobs lost. To me that would be the true number.

  3. How can one attempt to defend ineptitude….try to identify miniscule statistical facts or make them up themselves! Seriously, Obama has no record to stnd on…so he stands on the backs of those Americans who have actually created jobs…he has literally created about 20… In his inner circle. This from the man who began campaigning for reelection two years ago and cannot put forth a budget.

  4. It seems to me the good professor spent tremendous amount of the real estate on this page to find support for her conclusion that the RNC claim is false, rather than providing her own insight as to why the RNC claim is false.

    That “appeal” to authority considerably rings shallowness of her arguments – if there is any.

    As to the claim itself: we lost 740K jobs since 1/2009. Of that loss, 683K came from women and the reset from men. So of the job losses, 92% came from women.

    That statement is factually true.

    If you can dispute it with facts or math, bring it on. This “true but false” sounds like a desperate effort to spin.

  5. Mitt romney will not say , how many women he fired to increase his profit?.He is hypocrites,has no touch with common people .He is trying to deceive people.If he is really for common people and women , he should declare disapproval against resolution against women’s fundamental rights

  6. Prof. Joyce, as I emphasized below all of our civil rights are undergoing attacks, putting our democracy and humanity at increasingly grave risk.

    Ignorance is destroying our way of life and future.

    The solution to this, and all of our increasingly out of control social, political and economic problems, is to educate every child until they are at least 20 years old, and provide free access to universities to make it possible for all citizens to contribute fully to the improvement and perpetuation of acceptable quality of life for all citizens and humanity.

    We must implement this solution with the greatest sense of urgency under the current conditions of overpopulation, degrading resources and climate changes that are threatening the human race with a complete loss of control over our long term future on this planet.

  7. Oops, I messed that up. The analogy I meant to use is this: 1 million people were born last year, 500,000 people died. Therefore, half of the babies born last year died. Sorry, its been almost 20 years since I read “How to Lie with Statistics.” But the point still remains, these numbers are flat out false.

  8. These numbers aren’t even misleading, they are downright false. They derive from a fundamental misunderstanding of statistics and how they are calculated. Basically, what Romney is saying is this: 1 million people were born last year, 500,000 people died last year. Therefore, 50% of all people born will eventually die. It is a common mistake of people who do not understand statistics.

    The idea that this number comes from the fact that job losses have hit female dominated industries is ludicrous. Yes, female dominated industries were hit harder in the latter part of the recession, but there is no industry in our economy that is THAT gender skewed.

  9. So…why did Scott Pelley on the CBS evening news agree with the statistic? He stated that CBS did their own research and stated that what Romney reported was true.

    Interesting indeed…being that CBS is a well…part of the liberal media…and still they had to agree.

    I’ve doubts about anything coming out of Berkeley…no offense. Have a great weekend!

  10. Its all a play with Numbers it always is. Here in the UK you get that alot with the Health sector. Every Party has a way to distort the Statistics to their favor.
    If you compare the market in terms of jobs, it’s not at all surprising that this is what plays close to the hearts of all Americans in current times, it is definitely going to be used by all sides including Obama.

  11. I’m sure that Professor Joyce would support the effort to calculate the real unemployment to include those who gave up looking for work, those who accepted part time because they could not find full time work,and others who are available for full time but are not counted due to the parameters of the way the way the rate is currently determined. Then we could get a more realistic picture of where the economy stands. I have read that figure is more like 15% to 20%. Since Professor Joyce is against dishonesty in statistical reporting I am sure she would be supportive of Duncan Hunter’s efforts.

    Also, speaking of dishonesty, I think we should ask ourselves why Romney brought up the issue in the first place. Republicans have been accused of having a war against women. However, who is it that has had a prominent number of women as leaders in their movement? I am talking about Michele Malkin, Sarah Palin, Nikki Haley, Michelle Bachmann, Sharron Angle, Ann Coulter, etc. They have had a ton of misogynistic comments hurled at them by leftist commentators yet no one from that side of the political spectrum has complained (the disavowal of Hilary Rosen is the only exception I can think of). Also, those who are against abortion or against forcing institutions to provide contraceptives are demonized and dehumanized and no one from the left complains about that. I find it ironic because anti-bullying is an effort that comes mostly from the leftist camp yet we see them verbally abusing people they do not agree with. Personally mystifying to me is the attack on the Tea Party as being racist but you had a good number of blacks running in Republican primaries, but they they are not counted as real blacks and are called “Uncle Toms”. Why can’t some members of the left just say they disagree and leave personal attacks out of the conversation? I think if the left wants to bring honesty and respect for people to the political process they should start by policing themselves. As hard has Obama and the left try to spin the idea that we are in a recovery or make the phony claim that there is a war on women then when they hold Republican accountable they will have some ground to stand on. But let’s not forget that Romney’s statement was a reaction to the ridiculous claim that Republican’s are waging a war against women. I don’t think either side is perfect but only if people on both sides of the political spectrum start being intellectually honest can we raise the level of political discourse in this country.

  12. The comments so far provide a microcosm of what is wrong with voters and politicians in the US. When one politician distorts or lies, the best course of action is to correct them, not to say one can lie so others should lie as well.

    Then comes the knee-jerk name calling as opposed to providing a reasoned argument. If the Romney camp uses figures from the beginning of January 2009 to attack Obama, then they are either deliberately lying or too lazy to provide accurate data. One can’t use data from before Obama was president to attack him. Second, it takes time for the policies of a new president to become, and then have an effect on the economy, as limited as it is. The economy was hemorrhaging jobs when Obama took over and that wasn’t going to stop at any time soon no matter who won. My view is one needs to what at least one or two years before you can see any significant effect of any president’s policies on the economy. The Democrats tried to attack Reagan early in his first term for thing that affected the economy while Carter was president, just as the Republicans are now trying to attack Obama for things that affected the economy under Bush II. Both are wrong.

  13. And I’m sure the good professor would also condemn the misuse of statistics to “prove” discrimination where none actually exists by invoking a theory of “disparate impact” in order to favor one individual over another regardless of qualifications or ability. And how about that top earning 1% thing that assumes the high earners are the very same people year after year, decade after decade, when in actuality the members of the top earning 1% category change dramatically from one period to the next. The creation of wealth is a good thing, right? The professor must also take pride in the fact that statistically, the poor and disadvantaged in the US still possess profoundly greater wealth than the overwhelming majority of the other human inhabitants of the planet. And I’m also certain that the fair minded professor often takes President Obama to task over these and other chronic and blatant statistical misstatements, right?

  14. Politicians always are known for “fuzzy math”. There is nothing new here. President Obama is guilty of the same. I hope you remember how he was playing with $500 billion of Medicare money adding it on one end of Obamacare and subtracting from another making it look like he actually did not take money out of Medicare to finance his Health Care Reform. If Romney to fight Obama, he has the right to use the same weapon. I agree with comment from GoldenBear 1984. Unfortunately, Obama failed. And Berkeley, as a flagship of higher education should address the issues fairly and in a balance way, not with the liberal (or conservative) slant to it. After all you should shape future minds, not brainwash individuals. BTW, I am a democrat.

  15. Prof. Joyce, mendacious cultural values of the Powers That Be (and want to be) takes me back to your “Pepper spray” post, and there was a followup report in the LA Times today:
    “Pepper spray report sharply criticizes UC Davis leaders, police”,0,267683.story

    The bottom line fact of life is that we probably maximized our civil and women’s rights in the 70s, and rights are being degraded at an uncontrolled rate today, attacked by the top three (as of last week that is) GOP presidential candidates, Washington and state politicians and institutional leaders who are destroying voting rights along with civil rights as fast as they can get away with it.

    I was at Berkeley in the 60s, and I never thought we would return to the days of fighting for civil rights again, especially on UC campuses again.

    As the Times article documents, the UC Pepper spray report and the President’s response makes the UC President and Chancellors look like a return to the age of Renaissance Popes and Cardinals who thrived on power gained by maximizing greed and immorality. Just another history lesson that failed to be learned ever since, lessons that threaten the human race more than ever before during this era of overpopulation, degrading resources, and accelerating climate changes.

    So once again it is a time for another type of Reformation, in Washington, in states across America, and all other institutions throughout America.

    At UC, the regents and administrators have driven UC into a totally unforgivable state of bankruptcy, destroying the era of affordable education for all qualified California students that was supposed to be their highest priority, especially in a Democracy that must have education for all citizens to survive and prosper.

    So they are attacking students today just like they did in the 60s, a very up close and personal lesson in history that no one in positions of UC leadership should have forgotten, except for continuing cultural failures in leadership that never got fixed after the FSM and Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 70s, including the outrageous failure of ERA ratification because of the same GOP attackers that are doing even more harm today.

    The latest UC civil rights failures mean that the era of Ivory Tower royalty must end before they destroy our entire education system in California, because we have an even deeper cultural problem at UC than most people realize.

    So yes statistics lie, but the worst case scenario fact of life is that far too many institutional leaders get away with lying because far to many citizens have not had enough education to think and act to protect their own families, civil rights, Democracy and the human race.

  16. Wow!
    What a surprise; a Berkeley professor adding their name as apologist for the Obama Administration. They spend their time looking for arguements against Republican claims (of which there are admittedly many) but avoid asking questions about the misarable job creation of this adminsitration the deficit this president continues to grow.
    It’s good to know there is diversity at Berkeley! Perhaps conservative professors (if there are any) should be given preference for tenure for the sake of diversity????
    In any case, I love the place. Go Bears!

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