Figures do not lie, but partisans know how to spin
Posted 12/12/17 (Tue)
By Steve Andrist
“Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure.”
This clever word play with an even cleverer meaning has been around a long time.
Some say it originated with Mark Twain around the turn of the century.
Others credit Carroll D. Wright, the top U.S. government statistician of his day, who is know to have used the expression in 1889.
But when he used it then, even Wright referred to it as an “old saying,” indicating he’d heard it, not coined it.
Quoteinvestigator.com has come to a more likely explanation of the expression’s origin:
“The first instance is in a North Dakota newspaper of 1884 where the sentiment is presented as an anonymous piece of wisdom.”
It doesn’t say which newspaper, but there weren’t many around in those days.
The state’s first newspaper, The Bismarck Tribune, began operations in 1873, and the first weekly, The Hillsboro Banner, printed its first edition in 1879.
It’s cool that a saying so pervasive may have originated in the state, but regardless of the origins, its staying power is testament to its veracity.
Even in today’s data-driven world, in which untold volumes of science, knowledge and other information is available any hour of the day on any number of devices, there are countless times it can be applied.
“Liar” might actually be too strong a word for situations to which the famous saying applies.
But hey, it’s a saying that makes a point by its flair, not by a literal reading.
If we don’t care about flair, we might have different words for these “liars,” like “truth-benders,” or “spinners,” or “partisans.”
Especially partisans, whether in Bismarck or Washington.
Case in point:
Last winter when the North Dakota Legislature was deciding to eliminate the state agency charged with tobacco prevention and control, it was presented with hard data illustrating that tobacco use had been greatly reduced since the agency was formed.
The data wasn’t disputed, but the partisans figured. They explained away the data, saying it could have resulted from other factors, and in any event the effort was too expensive.
Another case in point:
A few weeks back, the U.S. Senate was preparing to pass its version of tax relief and reform.
In preparation it asked the Congressional Budget Office to analyze the proposal.
The CBO is a federal agency, paid for with taxpayer funds and charged with providing independent, non-partisan information to Congress on budget and economic issues.
In its analysis, the CBO offered data indicating the Senate tax bill would add $1.4 trillion to the federal debt over the next 10 years.
Supporters didn’t lie, they figured.
They voted for the bill saying that they don’t believe the data.
My beef isn’t with the Republicans who expressed the opinion that the CBO data won’t pan out, because Democrats use the same tactic when it suits their purposes.
Rather, my beef is with the partisans of any stripe who claim that decisions must be based on data, but then find excuses to dismiss the data when they don’t like what it says.
Along the same lines . . .
The Senate tax bill eventually passed on a 51-49 vote, with all but one Republican voting in favor and all Democrats voting against.
That includes Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., voting in favor, and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., voting against.
Heitkamp was immediately accused of casting a “partisan” vote.
Here’s my question: Didn’t Hoeven cast a partisan vote, too?
Of course, both did. But too often, when someone says a politician cast a partisan vote, the intent is to suggest there’s something wrong with that.
That’s the way our system works.
The votes happen to be partisan because of the underlying philosophical and belief characteristics of the voter.
It’s just one more example of the disingenuous nature of politics as usual.