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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Let's try using truths, dang truths and other statistics

By Tom Warhover
December 18, 2009 | 11:36 a.m. CST

Dear Reader,

Mark Twain wrote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

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The proliferation of bad polls is distressing. They tend to clearly place statistics in the lies category, when we know they can be so much more useful in the truth-telling business.

If I were to add an online poll to this letter – let’s say, an approval rating of Tom Warhover – the results would tell me only this: A certain number of people who chose to read the poll and vote feel a certain way about Tom Warhover.

Depending on the online polling service, I might not even be able to say how many people voted. What, you thought the strategy of “vote early, vote often” was dead?

The poll certainly would say nothing of the population at large.

A good thing, too, because I can remain blissfully ignorant of anything other than my own fiction, which tells me my approval rating would be 105 percent.

So I worry when polling “data” starts creeping into the Columbia Missourian.

Two weeks ago, a reader took issue with a column that cited a poll done by the group Keep Columbia Safe to promote the placement of cameras downtown.

I defended the usage because I thought the critical question of sourcing was addressed. It was clear in the column that the “poll” was one simply to advocate a position, not gather scientific data.

On Friday, another column referred to polls about holiday greetings. Again, the sources were given to these totally unscientific polls.

Again, I think smart readers like you should be able to tell the difference.

I don’t like them, though.

You shouldn’t have to work so hard, dear reader, for your intellectual meal, deciding which numbers to trust and which to discard.

…..

More on statistics

What “moves the needle” more than crime when it comes to readership?

Except for sports, not much.

Each week, editors receive a report concerning online readership. The recent quadruple homicide involving three Columbians — Karen Kahler and her two teenage daughters — and Kahler’s grandmother created a big spike.

The event should. It’s not every day, thankfully, that there is such a horrendous act affecting our community.

The mistake would be to read those numbers and assume the Missourian should run crime du jour every day.

Instead, the strategy here is to do what can be done to make sense of crime in our community: to provide the facts of individual cases, but also the context in which they occur and how people can act.

Thursday night, an editor worried that the “sidebar,” or accompanying story, to the report of an MU student’s suicide was longer than the main story.

The sidebar carried suicide prevention information. It needed to be as long as, well, as long as it needed to be.

….

On Friday, the Missourian ran a story about Eliot Battle earning an honorary doctorate.

My only question: What took so long?

When I arrived in Columbia a mere 8½ years ago, I asked editors for a list of people I should meet.

Eliot Battle and his wife, Muriel, were at the top of the list.

He has been a leader — in issues of diversity and more — in Columbia for a long time.

Well done.

Tom