The ongoing presidential debates mark the perfect time to take a brief look at logic and statistics. On any given issue, statistics are often used to create a bulletproof case, but things aren't always what they seem. In fact, statistics are tricky little buggers. They are used to strengthen arguments and make them appear logical, but how good is a statistic if you can't fact check it? Most of us aren't equipped to go beyond the basic steps of fact checking, even if the Internet makes it possible.
My rule of thumb: Do a quick Google search and look for multiple perspectives on the issue involved. If it's political, look for both conservative and liberal voices. If a study is mentioned, try to find the original and decipher it on your own, or look for a .edu website explaining it.
Here's an example from President Obama's 2016 State of the Union Address:
According to this speech, the U.S. spends "more on our military than the next eight nations combined." Presented this way, the numbers seem outrageous. Why are we spending so much on national defense when no one else even comes close? (By way of comparison, in 2009, U.S. defense spending accounted for 40% of global arms spending, and in 2012, our defense budget was 6x larger than China's).
While the dollar amount remains the same in both examples, what the dollar amount is compared with changes, and this affects how we feel about our spending. This is what statisticians mean when they say "statistics lie." Numbers and facts can be construed to say almost anything you want them to say. There is nothing inherently wrong in the statement "we spend more than other nations on national defense," nor is there anything inherently right about it either. This is where we must be careful. Can we see both sides of the argument? Are we clear about the purpose of the statement being made? Doing those Google searches and seeking out multiple opinions can help us here.
I won't leave you hanging as to what I think about the military budget. There's no magic formula as to how much we should spend on defense, or even how much we should spend in relation to other nations. By analogy, I have friends who live in a pretty bad neighborhood. They've spent some money on a home security system, and they bought a big German Shepherd. But that didn't prevent someone breaking into their house and trying to steal some appliances while they were away. After all, isn't the message of every spy movie ever made that no matter how much you spend on security, no matter how innovative your technology is, there's always a way to get in if you try hard enough?
The story has a happy ending though. As the man was walking away with their TV, a neighbor that my friend had befriended saw what was happening, called the police and started yelling at the guy to put the TV down. He did, and ran away, but they caught him later.
If we want to live in a safe society, it's not about how much we spend, or how many weapons we buy. It's how we treat the people (and countries) around us. It's how we treat the strangers at our door. It's about the honest relationships we are building with the global community, and the just, generous and fair policies we not only commit to, but follow through on. These are the principles of Just Peacemaking, which you can read more about here.
I've been listening to Les Miserables this week. Of note, it's the story of what happens when we treat the marginalized strangers at our door in unexpected ways: