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  • Last modified 38 days ago (Feb. 14, 2019)

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The latest four-letter word: M-A-T-H

Among many great lines, Mark Twain popularized the concept that there are three types of deception: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Some statistical lies are just fancy ways people who are handy with numbers try to deceive the rest of us.

Imagine a company that suddenly faces competition. It admits that one year it lost 33 percent of its sales. The next year, however, business roared back, with a 50 percent increase.

Think the company more than responded to the challenge and emerged 17 percent stronger? In fact, it’s right back where it started.

Do the math: Sales were $3 million and dropped to $2 million, a 33 percent decline. They then increased 50 percent, which would move them from $2 million back to $3 million. A 33 percent decline followed by a 50 percent increase leaves you exactly where you started.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Another great way to lie is by following the strategy of the game show “Family Feud” and shouting: “Survey says…!”

One such lie hit our desk this week. Chances are you’ll be hearing well-coiffed TV anchors breathlessly reciting it in the next few days.

It’s is a new so-called study saying that Americans categorize gasoline prices as a bigger issue than health care costs and the need to set money aside for emergencies or retirement. This is particularly true, the so-called study says, for people ages 18 to 24.

The study turns out to be sponsored by a cell phone app that charts lowest gas prices in each region. Results are based on surveys of the app’s users.

Surprise, surprise. People so concerned about gas prices that they have downloaded an app to chart the least expensive prices think gas prices are important.

Surprise, surprise. People younger than 24 aren’t worried much about retirement or health care.

It’s called selection bias, and it’s an absolute favorite — along with phrasing of questions in leading ways — among pollsters who practice the fine art of lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Is it any surprise that government adopts similar approaches, especially when its employees argue that they need to be paid more?

Marion County got hit with this last summer, when it paid a princely sum to consultants who insisted county employees were being paid too little. The state judicial system made a similar case last week when it cited some sort of study concluding that judicial system employees were underpaid.

It’s kind of like the big push now on to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour — which would translate to an annual salary of $31,200 for someone working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.

Is that really is the absolute minimum “living wage” anyone can get by on? Maybe in New York City, where an efficiency apartment might cost $2,500 a month. But think of all the people you know, including those on pensions, who get by fairly comfortably on much less hereabouts.

Somebody wanting to buy and sell newspapers, so they can be turned into cookie-cutter, cost-cutting links in massive uncaring chains, sent us a formula on how to value our business.

If we would just kill two of our papers and fire one of our employees, our appraised value would increase from about what we paid for the place to anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million more.

Sorry. It’s not worth it to us, even if that isn’t yet another lie, damned lie, or statistic.

The true measure of whether we need to cut back, as many neighboring publications have done, or whether government needs to increase pay is what the marketplace tells us.

As long as we’re able to pay our bills and government is able to find willing workers, we don’t need fancy math giving us lies, damned lies, and statistics.

At the newspaper, our job is to try to find out what you haven’t been told so you can solve riddles like this one:

Two fathers and two sons sat down to eat breakfast. Together, they ate exactly three eggs, but each person had one egg. How can this be?

Stumped? Consider that the group could include a grandfather and a grandson, making the third person count twice, as both a son and a father. You just assumed there were four people at the table, and you know what some grade school teacher probably told you about when we ASS-U-ME.

Give our little riddle a shot. If you can fool people with it, perhaps you belong writing news releases for cell phone apps and salary plans for government bureaucracies. You might even be able get yourself a raise once you get the job.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Feb. 14, 2019

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