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Lying with statistics

As Deb Nolan and I wrote in our book, Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks, the most basic form of lying with statistics is simply to make up a number. We gave the example of Senator McCarthy’s proclaimed (but nonexistent) list of 205 Communists, but we have a more recent example:

One of the supposed pieces of evidence [of votes being recorded for dead people] was a list that circulated on Twitter Thursday evening allegedly containing names, birth dates, and zip codes for registered voters in Michigan. The origin of the list and the identity of the person who first made it public are not known.

CNN examined 50 of the more than 14,000 names on the list by taking the first 25 names on the list and then 25 more picked at random. We ran the names through Michigan’s Voter Information database to see if they requested or returned a ballot. We then checked the names against publicly available records to see if they were indeed dead.

Of the 50, 37 were indeed dead and had not voted, according to the voter information database. Five people out of the 50 had voted — and they are all still alive, according to public records accessed by CNN. The remaining eight are also alive but didn’t vote.


In an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox News on Nov. 8, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said the Trump campaign had “evidence of dead people voting in Pennsylvania . . . The Trump team has canvassed all early voters and absentee mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. And they have found over 100 people they think were dead, but 15 people that we verified that have been dead who voted. But here is the one that gets me. Six people registered after they died and voted. . . . I do know that we have evidence of six people in Pennsylvania registering after they died and voting after they died. And we haven’t looked at the entire system.” . . .

We reached out to the Trump campaign and Graham’s Senate office for details about the Trump campaign research that concluded some number of ballots were cast by people who have died, but we did not get a response.

Graham was perhaps savvy enough not to give the list of 100, or 15, or 6. No list; nothing can be checked.

What’s interesting about this example is that no quantitative analysis is needed; you can just check the individual cases. But people don’t always check.

As the saying goes, when there’s smoke there’s smoke.


  1. paul alper says:

    Andrew wrote:
    “What’s interesting about this example is that no quantitative analysis is needed; you can just check the individual cases. But people don’t always check.”

    According to an article dated November 11, 2020,

    WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—In his latest legal action, Donald J. Trump has filed a lawsuit to overturn former President Barack Obama’s election in 2008.
    “Throwing out Obama’s win seems like a long shot to most legal scholars, who note that the former President won in 2008 by more than nine million votes and racked up three hundred and sixty-five Electoral College votes in a resounding landslide.”
    Borowitz back in April 24,2017, claimed that Obama delivered “a relentless barrage of complete sentences in what was widely seen as a brutal attack” directed at Trump–>”Obama fired off a punishing fusillade of grammatically correct sentences, the likes of which the American people have not heard from the White House since he departed.”

  2. Zhou Fang says:

    A tactic I sometimes use when people are Wrong on the Internet is that, when confronted with a long long list of claims, I just take a random sampling of them and investigate a few of the claims to my satisfaction. If this random sampling is all nonsensical, then the remainder of the claims probably are too, and it’s a waste of time to investigate each and every one of them.

    Well, such an approach satisfies me, at least. I don’t know if it actually works to persuade anyone.

    • Andrew says:


      Yes, it seems like a problem with our legal system that there are not enough incentives to discourage false and misleading claims. It seems to be a strategy to give 100 arguments and then hope that one of them will manage to fake somebody out. The fact that they are promulgating tons of bad arguments should be relevant.

      • rm bloom says:

        During the war, propaganda operatives learned how minute rebuttal of enemy lies merely provided additional circulation for the lies. The soviets, by the way, were expert at seizing upon a rebuttal and transforming it into evidence for the very claim being attacked — giving it new life. The correct tactic in many circumstances was to silently let the win go to the other side, and strike back in a different direction.

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