Friday, April 04, 2008

Lying (by implication) with statistics

Just another day over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network:

Woman stuck in bathtub waits 5 days for rescue
Woman sues Victoria's Secret over bra injury
Men arrested after schoolgirls find severed head

And, of course, the one shown at upper right (screen-grabbed to remind you that we don't make this stuff up):

Survey: 60 percent of Arabs OK violent response to West

Which is one of the main things that Mideast coverage at Fox does: Remind you that you sit alone in the shrinking circle of light shed by Western Civ, and Those People are out to get you.

It's a tad bit duller in the hed on the story itself, which also has a bit of a different object:

Survey: More Than 60 Percent of Arabs OK Violent Response to Western Interference

A new poll has found that more than 60 percent of Arabs believe violence is a permissible reaction to Western interference in a country, and 55 percent believed offensive words or behavior was another acceptable response, Qatar's Gulf Times reported.*

Oh, so it's not a "violent response to the West," but a "violent response to Western interference"? Let's have a look at what Gulf Times actually reported and see if we can figure out why this article was worth the investment of staff time that rates a Fox creditline:

Arabs find issue of religious extremism exaggerated: poll
A YOUGOV poll commissioned by the Doha Debates has concluded that nearly one-third of all Arabs believe that Saudi Arabia is at greater risk from religious extremism than any other country in the world.

There's an interesting result, you think?** Having almost nothing to do with what Fox chose to prioritize when it appropriated the data?

Dishonesty with the results aside, let's return to the matter of "question error" and interpretations based on same. What does it mean to say violence is a permissible reaction to interference in a country?

We could consider "interference" first. That could mean, oh, subverting an elected government, supporting a military coup, colluding with an upset neighbor to be shocked! shocked! at the possibility of damage to an international resource -- pretty much anything up to and including an outright 21st-century combined-arms invasion.

What violence is permissible? That seems to be heavily conditioned on who's "interfering," where, to what degree, and how much we like the people doing the interfering. Substate violence against Soviet interference in Afghanistan seems to have been pretty good. State violence against Iraq's interference in Iran, not so good. State violence against Iraq's interference in Kuwait ... well, break out the color graphics, it's rally-round-the-flag time!

Perhaps a better way to look at it is: Under what conditions would any part of any population say "yes" when asked if violence is an appropriate response to "interference"? You could play a little TV bingo and see how long it is until you can catch "Red Dawn," the archetypal movie about how high school athletes respond to outside interference with Our Way of Life. Or you could ponder what today is the 40th anniversary of and note that in a large part of the country, well within living memory, the response to people who interfered with Our Way Of Life was to shoot them, blow them to pieces, drop them in the river, or otherwise terminate their commands with extreme prejudice.

So for tonight's assignment -- design a survey that, in your state or region, would yield 60% and 55% responses you could class as "justifiable" to questions about whether violence is acceptable in response to "interference" or "offensive words or behavior." Fox doesn't bother to report it (and I have some concerns about aggregating responses from that many countries), but you can have a margin of sampling error of 3.2 points at 95% confidence. Ready, steady, go.

* Alert readers will note that Fox got the second element completely bassackward. This is the proportion of respondents who say violence is an acceptable response to offensive words or behavior, not the proportion who think offensive words or behaviors are an appropriate response to Western interference. (I seem to recall some really cool posters in Berlin of Brezhnev tongue-wrestling with Erich Honecker; does that count as offensive words responding to interference?)
** Also part of a growing body of research about public opinion in Arab and Muslim countries, which most people who are interested in democracy (good) or conflict (generally not good) already know about. Which in itself says something about the degree to which the cousins at Fox either know or care about either democracy or conflict.



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

This is all too reminiscent of other stories we've seen in the past:

hed: New threats from Iran
lede: Iran says, if it is attacked, it will strike back (CNN Aug 7 06)


hed: Iran draws up plans to bomb Israel
lede: The deputy commander of Iran's air force said Wednesday that plans have been drawn up to bomb Israel if the Jewish state attacks Iran, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency. (AP Sep 19 07)

11:10 AM, April 05, 2008  

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