Tag Archives: Reason

On Michelle Malkin, Or, How to Lie With Statistics

As I mentioned in a previous post, Michelle Malkin recently wrote an article tangentially related to the Ferguson, MO shooting that is an excellent example of how to mislead readers with statistics.

For some other background, Malkin is one of the most odious figures in the American political landscape. She literally wrote a book defending  the use of concentration camps and racial profiling against disfavored minorities, using the examples of Japanese Americans in the Second World War and Arab and Muslim Americans in the aftermath of the September 11th  attacks. Reason – another conservative-ish magazine which (along with many others) eviscerated this book, asking “Could it be that she actually supports the idea of detaining American Arabs and Muslims?” – has also responded to the article. I’ll reference that response later. I’m choosing this response because the two publications often find themselves on the same side in political arguments. Reason tends to lean toward anti-government activism, while the National Review still seems to be stuck in a Cold War anti-Communist mindset (with occasional, probably disingenuous, forays into libertarianism), seeing Stalinists hiding under every rock and behind every bush (and Obama too).

The gist of Malkin’s article is that we shouldn’t be concerned about overzealous and authoritarian police actions because being a police officer is a dangerous job. This central point is a fallacy. Being a police officer may be a dangerous job, and the vast majority of police officers may be doing their best to protect the average citizen, but this does not mean that the public should not concern itself with police misconduct or even the appearance of police misconduct. Public oversight of public institutions is a key part of democratic governance. If a significant part of the population does not feel that such an important institution as law enforcement is supporting their interests (regardless of whether this feeling is factually correct), that is a problem for everyone.  Institutions depend on the cooperation and support of the people.

Malkin’s logic doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but let’s now look at her statistics. First, she mentions that over a recent 10 year period, there were 1501 deaths of police officers. The title interprets this as saying that an officer is “killed” every “58 hours.” Reason has tracked down the source of this statistic. The article correctly summarizes the death statistic in the source. The title, however, is deeply misleading. “Killed” implies that the officers were murdered. The source splits up the deaths into a number of different classes and shows that many of these were due to things like illness and car crashes. Even the figure for shootings can be misleading: it may include accidents and suicides in addition to murders. The number of police officers murdered is likely to be much smaller than this figure. Any number of murders is bad, but Malkin is grossly exaggerating the danger of being an officer compared to the average job.

In her first “fact:” Again, the figure of 100 officers “killed” is suspect for the reasons above. The numbers of assaults and injuries are not sourced, so we have no idea what the context is. Are these police reports, criminal complaints, indictments, convictions, or something else like extrapolated polling data? Overuse of minor charges such as disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, etc. (i.e. “contempt of cop” in unjustified cases – see people arrested for assaulting an officer’s fist with their faces) is a widely known phenomenon so we don’t know how many of these are legitimate.

In the second “fact:” Again, these figures have no context. It is obvious that these numbers are from a different dataset than the earlier 10 year figures. I would guess that these are all-time figures. A few things: New York has been the largest city in the US nearly since the beginning of the country. It would not be surprising if the NYPD has seen the most deaths of any municipal police department when it is both larger and older than nearly every other major department. Likewise, Texas is now the second largest state and has been one of the largest states for decades. It, too, will be expected to have more deaths than most states simply because of size.

Total deaths is just not a very useful statistic. Number per capita per year is more better for comparing different numbers, whether the number of deaths per police population per year or number of deaths per total population per year. This removes many size and age effects, though there are many other reasons why a direct comparison may be difficult. This has no bearing on the article because the article does not compare the numbers to anything. We have no idea how the death rate compares to the general population, or to other traditionally dangerous jobs. Additionally, the article is talking about policing today but provides historical figures. Ten year figures are reasonable because it’s all in the recent past, but historical figures like the NY and TX ones are not. Crime rates have been dropping precipitously since the early 90s, so a historical average over a period of time greater than 10 years will not accurately represent the current environment. Trends over time are critical in understanding these statistics.

Malkin also provides a comparison of the number of police deaths during part of August 2014 to the same part of August in 2013. The rate for this year is 14% higher than last year, which sounds bad. But, the numbers are 72 in 2014 and 63 in 2013.  Now let’s assume that the rate of deaths was constant in 2013 and 2014. It’s not exactly true, but I’d like to see what happens if we make this assumption. Then, we can estimate that the average number of deaths in this part of August is (72+63)/2 = 67.5. We can probably safely assume that these are primarily single deaths (again, little context is provided, but multiple death incidents are almost certainly a small fraction of deaths). In this case, the number should be Poisson distributed. The standard deviation is then (67.5)1/2=8.2. You can see that both the 2013 and 2014 numbers are well within a single standard deviation of this estimated mean. The difference is simply not even close to statistically significant. This is because integrating the number over too short a period leads to numbers that are sensitive to statistical fluctuations. While this 14% increase may be true (I have no reason to doubt it), there is no way for us to tell that it represents a real increase in the murder rate and not statistical noise. The year-to-date totals (or even seasonal totals) will have much larger numbers allowing for a more precise comparison.

Malkin ends the piece with descriptions of several recent murders of police officers and then a gratuitous jab at Al Sharpton, a favorite bogeyman of right wing commentators who hasn’t been relevant in a long time. There aren’t any stats here but it’s clearly designed to elicit an emotional response against more liberal-minded people (represented by Sharpton) in the reader.

An important question, then, is why did Malkin include such suspect statistics and poor logic? In a Twitter response to the Reason author (linked in the Reason article), Malkin insinuates that it’s not due to ignorance. Rather, she wrote the piece to push an agenda – support police action no matter what, particularly when her political opponents oppose that action. She disclaims any responsibility for the statistics because it’s her source that’s biased, not her. Evaluating sources is an important part of persuasive writing, particularly if you have such a wide audience as Michelle Malkin. Knowingly using unreliable sources without comment is unethical while inadvertently doing so when one should know better is irresponsible. Malkin places her political agenda above her commitment to the truth. By acting as a purveyor of ignorance, she reveals herself to be a demagogue who has no place in debates on serious issues.


More on Media Reactions to Ferguson, MO

After waiting a few days, I decided to start looking at media reactions to what’s been going on in Ferguson, Missouri. A lot has happened too: The governor has announced a curfew and the Ferguson police released the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown. The police also, against the wishes of basically everyone involved, released a video clip they claim shows Brown stealing some cigars (or cigarettes – it’s not really clear) prior to the shooting. They admit that the confrontation between Brown and the officer was unrelated, so this is clearly just trying to defame the victim, who of course can’t defend himself. This is reminiscent of the attempts to ruin Trayvon Martin’s reputation prior to the Zimmerman trial – Trayvon Martin smoked weed sometimes and got into a few fights, therefore the shooting must have been reasonable. We have no evidence that this video is relevant (even assuming the video even shows what the police say it shows), and it will clearly serve to inflame the tension between the community and law enforcement. Given that the Ferguson PD is no longer in control, maybe that was the point of releasing the video.

Most of the major news media have continued to cover the story. I won’t link to most of the pages, but you can look for yourself in the opinion pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, online magazines like Slate and the Atlantic. Some of these articles are from before my initial post on the subject but I’m including them anyway. Most of the media is echoing sentiments similar to those I gave in this post. The militarization of law enforcement and the history of violence and oppression aimed against black communities throughout the United States have prominent places in most of the commentary.

Interestingly, while most of the media has come out strongly against the police, the conservative media is split over which side to support (the protesters or the police). Unsurprisingly, Reason (which is not strictly a right-wing magazine) is emphatically opposed to the police. Given the articles right now on the front page, it looks like Drudge is also on the side of the protesters. The Weekly Standard is doing its best to ignore the issue. The American Spectator is on the side of racism, denying the existence of any racial disparities in the justice system – as if historical context doesn’t matter – and blasting Rand Paul for even suggesting that racism could still exist. In a perfect example highlighting a point I made about President Obama, Ben Stein writes an incredible piece on that same website accusing Obama of hating America. While Stein’s piece doesn’t address Ferguson, it does provide a window into how the people at that magazine think. Stein writes that Obama is an “Angry Black Man” (yes, Stein really uses that term) whose hatred of America is evident in his inability to start enough wars to satisfy Stein’s bloodlust. I guess all Obama (Eric Holder too) has to do to be an “Angry Black Man” is to exist since he’s very carefully avoided giving strong public responses on many controversial issues.

The National Review actually shows some diversity of opinion on the topic of Ferguson. Ever-loathsome commentator Michelle Malkin decided that this was a good time to salute the nation’s police officers. She focuses on the fact that being a police officer is not the safest job in the world (though not the most dangerous either), with a number of officers killed every year. In the process, she uncritically lends support to the idea of American cities as “war zones” and police as a military occupation force. She also uses statistics in a highly misleading and unethical manner. It’s bad enough that I think I’ll write a separate post on lying with statistics. The clear implication of her article is that police should be free to murder citizens without restraint because their job can be dangerous. Jonah Goldberg writes an odd but mostly reasonable article calling to reserve judgment until an investigation into the initial shooting is done but also calls for police to be more sensitive and more responsive to the communities they’re supposed to protect. He also criticizes the attempts by some to blame Obama (why people are doing this, I have no idea) for what’s happening.

Kevin Williamson provides one of the laziest arguments possible: The unrest is (of course) the fault of the Democrats and their liberal policies like support for public schools and public transportation. Similarly to the many conservative figures who coincidentally just happened to discover the evils of Big Government on a certain Tuesday night in November, 2008, Williamson is clearly trying to attract libertarians to his decidedly non-libertarian cause (electing Republicans). To Williamson, redlining, white flight, and urban disinvestment are just natural responses to the excesses of Democratic control (many think that these cause many urban problems and lead to near-permanent Democratic control). Police are bad because they’re the government, and the government is axiomatically bad. Only local government policies matter, not state, federal, or non-governmental policies designed to impoverish certain communities (obviously and dangerously untrue). Giuliani saved New York from becoming a hellish dystopia (he didn’t). It’s almost unbelievable that these kinds of sentiments would come from a person writing in a magazine that once explicitly called for the subjugation of non-white people (conservative intellectual hero William F Buckley, at least during and before the Civil Rights era, was an unrepentant white supremacist). I would have at least hoped that the National Review would be more sensitive to the plight of those it fought so hard to keep in (figurative, if not literal) chains. There are many other articles that I won’t discuss here, but you can easily look for more.