We all have heard the wisecrack, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.” It may be a wisecrack, but the quip makes a solid point. Not that everyone who comes up with charts and data to argue a political point of view is a liar, of course.
But it is fair to observe that committed activists for a cause tend to focus on the facts and figures that demonstrate their thesis, that they do their research by hunting for information that will corroborate the “truth” as they see it.
How else to explain the phenomenon of advocates for one side or the other in the debate over issues such as welfare reform, affirmative action, free trade, and immigration appearing on the talk shows and reciting studies by “experts in the field” that come to diametrically opposed conclusions? These people aren’t deliberately misrepresenting the facts or ignoring information that clashes with their thesis. They are presenting the “facts” as they see them.
I am convinced, for example, that Lou Dobbs is not seeking to deceive us on his nightly talk show on CNN when he makes the argument that American jobs and our industrial base are being sacrificed by corporate interests looking for cheap labor. But neither are free-traders such as Larry Kudlow and Steve Forbes when they argue that American prosperity is advancing by leaps and bounds because of the dynamics of unrestricted free markets. They believe what they say. It is just that these opinion-makers are drawn to studies that back their convictions, and react skeptically to those that question them. They experience their “Aha!” moments in the former case. That is when they get the facts and figures that they jot down on their index cards.
This is what makes it difficult for Catholics committed to social justice to decide on a course of action in the political arena. It is unwise, and unfair to those who disagree with us politically, to link the social encyclicals to the first pie chart that we see. It is never that simple. Who, for example, should we look at when we make up our minds about what is right and just the dock workers and Toyota assembly-line workers earning middle-class salaries because of free trade, or the unemployed North Carolina textile workers who have lost their jobs because of overseas competition? Do welfare programs do more harm than good? Are affirmative actions programs a form of reverse racism that harm whites far more than they assist deserving minorities?
There are no studies that can close the case on any of these debates. Thomas Sowell has done a series of columns in recent weeks that illustrate why. He argues convincingly that when a politician or a journalist quotes a “study” or an “expert,” the odds are that we are being manipulated more than enlightened by the data they provide us.
Here are a few examples of what Sowell means. He took a look at a study that caused what he describes as a “great flurry in the liberal media” a few years back. You will probably remember it. It was the one that purported to demonstrate that “black pregnant women received prenatal care less often than white pregnant women,” resulting in higher infant mortality rates among blacks. Editorials in the New York Times and Washington Post, says Sowell, blamed the “government for not providing greater access to prenatal care” for poor minority women. It was treated as another example of the Bush administration’s preoccupation with tax cuts favoring the rich at the expense of the poor. You can picture a young Catholic leftist pointing to the findings of this study as an example of where the federal government should play a role in advancing the Church’s commitment to the least of our brethren.
The problem is that when Sowell looked at the actual study, rather than the interpretation of it in the mainstream press, he found glaring discrepancies. For one thing, “Mexican-American women received even less prenatal care than black women” and “the infant mortality rates among Mexican-Americans were no higher than among whites.” There is more: “A few pages further on, statistics showed that American women of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino ancestry also received less prenatal car than white women,” and they “had lower infant mortality rates than whites.”
Sowell’s conclusion: the Times and the Post were determined to make the case that there was a need for increased federal spending in this area and set out to find the “facts” to make their case, what Sowell calls “the kind of answer that suited the mindset of the liberal media and provided an occasion for them to wax indignant.”
Affirmative action programs? Sowell offers his own experience in trying to get the statistics behind the conclusion of a book by William Bowen and Derek Bok that purported to prove “the success of policies of preferential admission of blacks to colleges and universities.” Bowen and Bok’s book was widely praised in government and media circles and was cited in a Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.
Yet when Sowell sought the data that Bowen and Bok had relied upon, he was denied: “Back in the 1970s, I tried to get statistical data from Harvard to test various claims about affirmative action. Derek Bok was then president of Harvard and he was the soul of graciousness, even praising a book on economics that I had written. But, in the end, I did not get to see one statistic.”
Why not? Sowell contends that the proponents of affirmative action programs are guarding their turf at the expense of the truth: “Critics of affirmative actions have long said that mismatching black students with colleges that they do not qualify for creates wholly needless academic failures among these students, who drop out or flunk out of colleges that they should never have been in.”
The moral of the story? When a politician or reporter shows up on a television show such as Meet the Press and rattles off the facts and figures from the “experts” that demonstrate the need for an increase or a cut in federal spending on some social program, for why we are succeeding or failing in Iraq, for whether or not global warming is a man-made phenomenon we can remedy by implementing the Kyoto Protocol, or whether NAFTA is creating or destroying jobs we should wait for the “facts” and the studies by the experts on the other side before jumping to any conclusions. There are facts and there are facts.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)