How to lie with statistics: fact-checking the soundbites

Both left and right have soundbites designed to elicit a visceral reaction from the base. Some of those were on parade in the debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. A few were reprised in the O'Reilly/Stewart "Rumble" three days later.


  1. Let's first look at health care. 

  2. The boogeyman - or woman, as it were - to the pundits on the right is Sandra Fluke.
  3. They are both wrong.
  4. O'Reilly (and Rush Limbaugh, who triggered this conservative meme) misrepresents Fluke's argument. Fluke's Congressional testimony centered around having birth control pills covered by insurance -- not paid for by American taxpayers. She reminded everyone that birth control pills are often prescribed to treat medical conditions such as ovarian cysts -- they aren't "just" for managing procreation. Better yet, have the 50-year-old BCP available over-the-counter; that should bring the prices down.
  5. Stewart misrepresents her case by equating it with Viagra. Treatment for "lifestyle enhancement or performance" (e.g., Viagra) is not covered by many health insurance plans. And most states have laws on the books that require insurance companies to cover prescription contraceptive drugs and devices but no state requires coverage for erectile dysfunction. However, vacuum erection devices are covered by Medicare. (No complaints from O'Reilly or Limbaugh on that one.) Finally, in Fluke's case, it wasn't the insurance company that was failing to cover BCPs; it was the institution that wrote the contact with the insurance company.
  6. Next, gasoline prices.

  7. This is a textbook case of being able to lie (that is, misrepresent reality) with statistics. Both Romney and O'Reilly claimed that gasoline prices have doubled since Obama was sworn in. The talking point is straight from the Republican Study Committee.
  8. Technically, they are right. Contextually, it's a whopper that infringes on BurgerKing's trademark.
  9. In third quarter 2008 -- while Obama was running for president against Republican John McCain -- gasoline prices almost hit $4.00 a gallon and diesel, $4.50. Then there was a dramatic plunge -- one that had nothing to do with which guy was in the Oval Office and everything to do with the collapse of the world's economy. 
  10. On January 19, 2009, the average gasoline price in the U.S. was $1.85 -- a full $1.17 below the same day one year earlier. 
  11. On October 1, 2012, the average price for regular gasoline was $3.80, 37-cents above the same price a year ago. The average price for October will skyrocket because of the gasoline shortage in California, a shortage that the White House has little or no power to influence. Sacramento, on the other hand, could act to alleviate those prices.
  12. Moreover, drill-baby-drill isn't the answer although it's touted by the right. The domestic price of gas -- which is a function of the world market for oil, a non-renewable resource -- continues to rise even though the number of domestic oil rigs operating since December 2008 has almost tripled.
  13. What about household income? 

  14. Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They're just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. 
  15. And just before the debate, he said: "Income is down some $ 4,300 dollars a family and with a median income of about $50,000 dollars that means things are really tough for the American people."
  16. Let's look at household income data from the U.S. Census, both in current dollars and in 2011 (inflation-adjusted) dollars. That $50K median income has been pretty constant since 2007. From listening to Romney, you would have thought it had dropped almost 10%. But according to BLS data, it was $50,054 in 2011.
  17. Here are the absolute numbers in this chart: 2000: 41,990 - 2001: 42,228 - 2002: 42,409 2003: 43,318 2004: 44,334 2005: 46,326 2006: 48,201 2007: 50,233 2008: 50,303 2009: 49,777 2010: 49,277 2011: 50,054