Obviously the statement “Numbers can make everything true” is a logical fallacy, but it’s a long standing claim by many journalists that numbers in essence can make anything an absolute verified truth even if the statements are conflicting. But when these same numbers decide political policy and public opinion, the question becomes, how do you explain why the same statistics point in opposite directions so often?
The nationally renowned news organization CNN, covering the recent increase in the use of body scanners at airports recently ran an article whose basis was numbers. Interestingly, Reuters – arguably just as credible to the average media consumer – ran another article on the twelfth of this month. Both claimed Americans had come to an overwhelming decision on the use of body scanners. Both were using a simplified statistic that on its own seemed fairly credible and with little possibility for error. Both were online opinion polls. The shocker? Both came to completely different conclusions.
CNN suggested that the public had spoken and an overwhelming majority (80% of all those polled) were in support of the controversial “naked body scanners” in airports. The article itself did exercise a level of caution when referring to the issue not to take a side, but the message was clear: the people have spoken and they want these body scanners to be used for safety. The great and powerful Wizard known as science had spoken. The people would receive what they wanted. As the article did not include the raw data, however, my curiosity was piqued. Conducting a google search on the raw data regarding peoples’ opinions of airport body scanners one of the top articles suggested was one from Reuters. Their own article (which included the raw data on their informal poll) showed a 97% opposition to the policy. 97% is a landslide in any poll.
The universe we live in is strange. This is something we all get used to in time. But the level of strangeness manifesting in numbers so strongly seems a matter of statistical significance comparable to hitting the jackpot in the lottery several times over. When we factor in the fact that many people feel strongly about these scanners, a truth begins to take shape. Was there deception going on behind closed doors at either news agency? It’s difficult to say. And as it is difficult to say, it would be irresponsible to suggest without a better understanding of the situation. Almost as irresponsible as a mainstream media source entering a thought into the collective consciousness that is unsubstantiated. Almost. But one of these articles did openly display their source information and the other did not.
Whatever your opinion on body scanners, this trend shows a cult-like mentality surrounding numbers. Just as the oracle at Delphi was consulted for guidance in ancient Rome, panelists spout statistics seemingly from the ether today. And so the question becomes, are we becoming a world where an unspoken religion of numbers is arising? Do we question these numbers as much as we should?