Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Numbers held hostage

Numbers don't lie. Really. Quite the contrary, they're loyal, brave, thrifty, irreverent, obedient and honest to a fault. But if you lock numbers away in isolation, so they can't talk to each other, and force them to recite a predetermined script, it's not all that hard to make them say whatever you want -- or at least to look like they're saying it.
Hence this graphic from Fox News, evidently the fruit of long weeks of hard-nosed exclusive reporting that just happened -- sheer coincidence! -- to be ready for prime time today. And it's pretty evident what the numbers are being told to say: Reenlistments have been climbing steadily since 2003. Leading to this triumphant hed and story:
U.S. Army Isn't Broken After All, Military Experts Say

And the experts have the numbers to back them up. (Actually, it's only one guy saying that: meaning "expert says," not "experts say," in case somebody at Fox lost the key to the editing midterm. And -- stop us if you've heard this before -- the expert is also a Fox contributor!) Or they do, if you let your lying eyes try to do too many things at once: for example, scanning the proportions in the chart at the same time you're reading the numbers they're supposed to rep- resent. Using the "U.S. Army statistics obtained exclu- sively by Fox News," here's another way of representing that information visually. (Yes, if you thought 69, 512 and 69,777 should have been pretty much identical, you were right.)
But that's just nitpicking, right? Obviously, the real story is that reenlistment is up, up, up! Well, let's pass a few spoons out among the isolation cells and see if the numbers can figure out a way to communicate in Morse or something. Maybe if 2005 talked to 2006, and they both managed to get a message to 2001, who passed it along to 1999, we'd get something like this:
Or: Reenlistment appears to have fallen rather sharply starting in fiscal 2001. It appears to have bottomed out in 2003 (about 24% lower than 2000) and has since climbed back to almost the prewar level.

That's just the numbers Fox chose to use, and they're not much. What's this "mission" reenlistment figure that's on the PDF but not in the graphic?* Fiscal 2007 recruiting was at 112% of "mission," but the "mission" figure was 62,000: down from the past two years, which themselves represented an increase to fiscal 2001 levels (though substantially down from the late 1990s). Why is the reenlistment mission for the Army 17,000 lower than it was a decade ago?

Fox isn't necessarily lying with statistics; it's just being very selective about the fragments of truth it decides to let out. And that's not just an offense when Fox is nomming the toes of its political paymasters. It's wrong when anybody does it.

* I don't know, so if some of you current or former military readers out there can shed some light on how this is determined, please do.

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