Department of incredibly empty statistical arguments

You’ve all heard of the “factoid” – which Wikipedia helpfully defines as a “questionable or spurious—unverified, incorrect, or fabricated statement presented as a fact, but with no veracity.”  One can watch entire political interviews on a Sunday morning and hear almost nothing but factoids, especially on any budgetary or economic matter. 

There’s a subset of factoids that I don’t believe we have a name for, but which is common in sports and political discussion.  It’s the argument seemingly based on statistics, but dependent on information of little to non-existent statistical significance. 

I heard the following example also quoted on Meet the Press today, without attribution.  I suspect it’s floating around wherever people paid well for having nothing to say gather:

FDR is the only president in the last 75 years to be re-elected when the economy was in bad shape and unemployment was over 8 percent.

That’s from an otherwise almost entirely unremarkable post at the Fox News site, by Bernard Goldberg, under the title “Obama 2012 Win a Sure Thing?” (h/t HotAir headlines).  

The problem with the argument is that FDR is the only president in the last 75 years to run for re-election with unemployment over 8 percent.  In fact, since World War II and prior to the current period, the only times the U.S. unemployment measure stood higher than 8% at all were November 1981 through January 1984, and the entire 12 months of 1975

There is nothing underlying “re-elected when the economy was in bad shape and unemployment was over 8 percent.”  You could just as rightly say that no challenger in the modern era has ever defeated an incumbent president when unemployment was over 8 percent, and perhaps spin some bullshit argument about people clinging to the security of a familiar face in hard times, etc., etc.

I need a word for this kind of argument.  “Voidistic”?  “Numberoid”?  “Pseudistic”?  “Hackistic”?


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16 comments on “Department of incredibly empty statistical arguments

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  1. I think there’s more t this than merely factoid manipulation. The listener assumes there is at least 1 or 2 more instances of the 8% at election time thing and says who? it must be Carter.

    We have seen in Mitt’s piece in the Boston Herald an attempt to link Obama’s misery index as a new high to Carter’s.

    It was orthodoxy among fical conservatives of a certain generation that the stimulus and O’s general free spending ways would lead inevitably to stagflation.

    In a dark corner of their hearts some of them undoubtedly wish there had been no back up helicopter in the OBL raid.

  2. @ fuster:
    With >8% unemployment: 0. Because no election since FDR has taken place with >8% U. ’76, ’80, ’84, ’92, and ’08 came close, but no 8% cigar.

    Regardless of unemployment: 3. Ford, Carter, and GHWB.

    Successful 2nd Termers would be Truman, Ike, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, GWB, though Truman and LBJ were not re-elects (and probably wouldn’t have been truly re-elected for what would have been quasi-3rds). If you remove them from the equation, then you also have to remove Ford, since he was running to be elected for the first time.

  3. There’s always Churchill’s line about statistics, the odd thing is how the underwhelming economic news is always ‘unexpectedly bad’ like
    the three grams of increased chocolate rations that never arise,

  4. @ CK MacLeod:

    don’t think that Ford really counts, considering that he wasn’t voted to high office and then rejected instead of re-elected.

    even LBJ and Truman are less iffy as examples of people running for re-epection than is Ford.

    I was thinking that the total was Carter and Bush….and Carter didn’t get beat on his handling of the economy, IIRC.

  5. @ fuster:
    Whether you include Ford depends on what argument you’re trying to make about the power of incumbency, I think, but everything depends on everything.

    If the economy had been booming in 1980, then probably Carter would have won. But if we had been in an historical era of high national self-confidence and good feeling of the sort generally associated with a booming economy, Carter wouldn’t have been elected in the first place. And Ford might not have become president either, as Nixon might not have resorted to as many dirty tricks or his dirty tricks might not have been exposed, but then again LBJ might have sought and won re-election, and skipping in the other direction, Reagan wouldn’t have seemed like the answer to any urgent question, and so on and so on.

    What’s clear is that we’re in a different era today. How different – we’re still learning/determining. Even if there was a sound statistical basis for making arguments about a tight unemployment-re-elect link, say a history of 33 high unemployment re-elect efforts to look back on, with approximately the same electoral mechanisms, you’d still get at most a probability statement subject to collision with facts and contexts that don’t fit within the model.

  6. Ford was picked precisely because he had no great appeal, no great following
    and not much of a reputation except as an amiable guy and a person devoted to congressional collegiality and willing to be no more than a placeholder….not someone who would be able to command any advantage of incumbency should he become a candidate.

    You mean if people weren’t so angry, outraged and ashamed that Carter wasn’t able to do anything to get the hostages back that they were willing to vote for someone few people respected or agreed with, they would have re-elected Carter if there was some tangible evidence that he was doing something good?

  7. “Pseudistic” is the funniest, but all of those words for “this kind of argument” can work in different contexts. You know that, so it probably wasn’t a real question. I answered any way.

  8. @ fuster:
    It’s worth recalling that Carter had a remarkably difficult presidency. He presided over largely unremitting stagflation and great economic pessimism. He made energy policy and transformation to a low growth stability model a centerpiece of his presidency, and, despite major efforts to pass legislation and vast public soul-searching culminating in the so-called “malaise” speech, he never got anywhere. He fired his cabinet instead of following through, and was down around the low 20s approval-wise. When the hostages were taken, the political effect was an increase in his popularity (rally round the flag). Even after the failed rescue mission he was competitive with Reagan in all major polls. Pollsters like to say it was the final weekend and the famous “Reagan turn” that led to his defeat.

    The fact that Ford, despite all of the defects you mention – and many other – nearly closed the gap on election day, may also be in part a testament to incumbency even in its weakest form. He had AF1 and a history of not having completely screwed the pooch. That was about it, other than being an amiable laughingstock. Possibly his strength also pointed to the reservoir of anti-counterculture conservatism that had propelled Tricky to his mega-landslide victory in ’72.

    The fact that he was even in the race after the Kennedy challenge and such a miserable term in office is in part a testament to the power of incumbency

  9. I kinda remember the Carter years as difficult all right. And I remember the
    election as a choice between two candidates that most of the country found uninspiring.
    I’ve looked inside my heart and still can not find a way to forgive Carter for losing to Reagan and allowing a kind face to be put upon what that presidency wrought.

  10. Something that might help in respect to forgiving Carter has to do with his fight against racism. I’m sure I only pretty much see what I want to see about Jimmy (a good-hearted man for a politician if there ever was one), and I’m just going by memory here, but there was a documentary about him that recounted the way he pulled a switcharoo on all the good-old-boys in Georgia, letting them think he was one of them, waiting until his was being sworn into office and then out of the blue, making it very clear that he would be enacting all the civil-rights legislation they all feared.

  11. @ Scott Miller:I’m gonna give a little more credit toward fighting racism to Lyndon Johnson, Scott. I don’t understand how it was that motivated a man of his time and background to put all his ass into it (if not his heart), but by Carter’s time the walls had been breached.

  12. @ fuster:
    We don’t have to give any credit to any white people if we don’t want to give ’em any. That’s fine with me. I was just trying to help you forgive Jimmy. As white people go–especially white politicians–he deserves some love I think. That’s all.

  13. @ Fuster – I think Ford was chosen because he really was a Boy Scout & somehow someone or something got thru the Republican machine that it was the time to put someone in office that was trustworthy, no matter their political thinking….how novel…

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