“I tend not to believe people; they lie. The evidence never lies.” -Gil Grissom, CSI

I have been thinking about data and how it has become a subplot with some of the major stories throughout the fall. (2012 elections, Hurricane Sandy, Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera) You had people espousing a perspective that was based on facts, and you had people espousing a perspective based on narrative and/or emotion.

It seems when people are basing their opinion on a narrative or emotion, they know they can’t win with facts. Or, the cherry pick facts out of context to support their argument.

A favorite of mine. “Mitt Romney received less votes than John McCain in the presidential elections.” The statement is meant to show how Romney doesn’t measure up as a candidate, how the GOP is in decline, and/or is meant as a bit of a putdown. While the statement is true about McCain receiving more votes, it doesn’t provide any context. If you were to take a minute and look deeper into the facts you would see:

  • Romney received a higher percentage of the vote than McCain. (47.7% to 45.7%)
  • Romney won more electoral college votes than McCain. (206 to 173)

This is not meant as a defense of Romney’s campaign, or the Republican Party, but just a quick look at the facts. Yes, McCain received more votes than Romney (59,934,814 to 59,634,222), but when you look at the other facts you see Romney garnered better results than McCain. (As you can probably surmise, overall voter turnout was down from 2008. Barack Obama received roughly 6,000,000 less votes than in 2008.)

It’s a case of how facts can be used to purport a narrative, but it can be a misleading one.

You see this with a number of political pundits. They take strands of data and work it into their already entrenched positions. Yet they hardly ever give a full context of that data.

When Nate Silver predicted the results of the presidential election (an easy win for President Barack Obama), a number of pundits ridiculed him. They didn’t think his prediction passed the “eye test”, it wasn’t reflective of the late charge/momentum Romney appeared to have, it wasn’t taking into consideration national polls or the alleged undecided/independent voter. Even better was when they went with the standby of schoolyard taunts and outdated stereotypes along the lines of him living in his mother’s basement.

Pundits thought it was going to be a toss-up, especially those that leaned GOP. Days before the election, I started to see a number of GOP-leaning media predict a Romney win.

Nate Silver ended up being right on 51 out of 51 of his predictions. (Washington DC is 51) He looked at the facts, he looked at the mounds of historical data available to everyone, he looked at the system that is set up to elect a president and made a fairly simple conclusion. Obama is going to win, and it’s not going to be close.

It’s easy to be misled by what you think you see. Sometimes you see what you want to see, and think that is the truth. The facts say something else. Facts are emotionless, and don’t have a narrative attached to them. Some GOP-leaning media wanted to see a closer race than what was actually there. I’m sure some of them wanted a Romney win over Obama, and that bias (intentional or unintentional) tainted their work.

It reminds me of another fact, Hillary Clinton received more votes in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries than Barack Obama. (17,857,501 to 17,584,692) Again, if you don’t go deeper into the facts, you’ll miss things like:

  • Michigan and Florida violated rules when they held their primary elections earlier. As a result, the DNC  initially decided not to award their delegates.
  • Obama, along with other Democrat candidates, withdrew his name on the ballot in Michigan’s primary election. Clinton chose to remain on the ballot and secured 328,309 votes.
  • Neither Clinton or Obama made official campaign visits to Florida, but made unofficial appearances. Clinton beat Obama, in Florida, by a count of 870,986 to 576,214.
  • Unlike the GOP’s winner-take-all format with delegates (in most states), Democrats allocate them by proportion of the voting results. Obama ran a campaign that would leverage the system to his advantage. It was a “Moneyball” campaign. So, for example, while Clinton won populous states California and New York on Super Tuesday, it didn’t matter because Obama came away with delegates in those states.

The last point is crucial. National polls don’t mean much when you have an electoral college in place. As in 2008, Obama had a plan in place that secured him the election. Regardless of what national polls were saying, his campaign was looking at all the data and how it applied to their context. It never misled them. The election was theirs all along.

The evidence never lies. How one uses evidence is the key. People can lie, to themselves and others, whether they realize it or not. It’s the people that are making the lie, not the facts.

*Originally, I was going to write about the American League MVP debate between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera as a part of this. When I read Jeff Passan’s column about Mike Trout over Miguel Cabrera, I chuckled because it was along the lines of what I wanted to write…but much better. It’s a fantastic piece, and I’d encourage you to read it.

Further reading:

Stats revolution doesn’t have enough political muscle to reward AL’s true MVP: Mike Trout by Jeff Passan

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