A Numbers Game

Before I pivoted to writing full-time, I was a scientist. A molecular biologist, to be exact. I wore a lab coat and everything. Trust me, it was very impressive.

Like many scientists, I’m more than passingly acquainted with statistics. I’m not saying I’m a wiz or anything, but I know enough to get by. When you spend half your time generating data and the other half analyzing it, a little number crunching is unavoidable.

The funny thing about numbers is, people take them as gospel, when in fact they can be manipulated in all sorts of ways—and for all sorts of reasons.

Eighteen months ago, the media went nuts over a World Health Organization report that classified bacon as a carcinogen. The statistic they latched onto was that eating bacon made you 18% likelier to develop colorectal cancer. Pretty terrifying, right?

Not really. See, your baseline risk of developing colorectal cancer is roughly 5%. 18% of 5% is 0.9%. So in reality, eating bacon raises your risk of colorectal cancer by less than one percent. (By comparison, a recent European study indicated that smoking increases the likelihood of contracting lung cancer from 0.2% to 24.4% for men, and from 0.4% to 18.5% for women.)

But wait! There’s more! The WHO's numbers were predicated upon consuming two slices of bacon a day. That’s 730 slices per year. If you eat 730 slices of bacon every year, colorectal cancer is probably the least of your concerns (but hey, I can’t blame you, because bacon).

It’s possible the media genuinely didn’t understand the data, but I suspect they didn’t care to. BACON CAUSES CANCER is a sexy headline, destined to go viral, because nothing’s clickbait-ier than scaring the shit out of people. Besides, everybody knows that bacon’s bad for you, so there’s no harm in encouraging people to eat a little less of it… right?

Maybe, although I’d argue responsible reportage is an end in itself. And sometimes, misleading statistics are used for more nefarious purposes than simply generating clicks.

Last November, after a robust debate, Maine voted to legalize recreational marijuana. The vote was fairly close, but the result was upheld after a recount challenge.

Yesterday, the Portland Press Herald ran an op-ed piece by Scott M. Gagnon, the head of the anti-legalization group No On 1. In it, Gagnon claimed that “half of Maine voters voted No on Question 1. The majority of municipalities in Maine had a majority of voters vote No on Question 1.”

The first of those assertions is incorrect. The second, while technically correct, is dangerously misleading.

Wrong though it is, I’m inclined to give Gagnon a pass on that first one. 50.26% of Mainers who voted cast their ballots for legalization; 49.74% voted against. While I’d point out that 49.74% is less than half (a conclusion borne out by the fact that recreational marijuana is now legal in Maine), I’ll concede we’re splitting hairs.

His second assertion is where I have a problem. “The majority of municipalities in Maine had a majority of voters vote No.” Quite the rhetorical loop-de-loop, isn’t it? And it sure sounds impressive. Like most Mainers agree. Like the municipalities that supported legalization were crazy outliers, easily discounted.

The problem is, those crazy outliers are the most populous municipalities in the state. Otherwise known as cities. Maine is reportedly one of the whitest states in the union (as of 2007, only Vermont is whiter). You wanna guess where most of our minorities live?

Just kidding. This post trucks in facts, not guesswork. According to a 2014 report, 70% of Maine’s minorities live in four of sixteen counties, which also happen to contain Maine’s ten largest municipalities, and twenty-two of its largest twenty-five. (You can see how those municipalities voted on marijuana legalization here.)

You might wonder why that matters. According to a 2013 ACLU report, "Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Maine, despite the fact that they use marijuana at the same rates.” In York County (one of the four mentioned above), that number jumps to five times as likely, which is higher than the national average. So, by discounting or diminishing the urban vote, you’re effectively ignoring the people most likely to be affected by the ballot measure.

Simply put, Gagnon’s argument is misleading at best, and racist at worst. I’m not suggesting that Gagnon himself is racist; I don’t know the man, although we interacted on Twitter when I brought my concerns about his claims to his attention. For what it’s worth, I believe he’s sincere in his convictions, and working in what he thinks are Maine’s best interests. But by deemphasizing urban voters, he’s discounting the opinions of Maine’s minorities (not to mention the majority of Mainers) and cultivating an ugly us-against-them mentality that pits rural Mainers against those of us who live in (what, in Maine, passes for) cities. (I say what passes for because I live in one of 'em, and my house has dirt roads on either side.)

Maybe Gagnon never intended to deemphasize the urban vote. Maybe he was simply trying to cast his campaign’s narrow loss in a more favorable light. But this issue is larger than one op-ed piece in one newspaper. You need only to watch John Oliver’s recent segment on gerrymandering or read up on why a vote for president in Wyoming carries as much weight as four in New York to realize this bias is as endemic as it is insidious.

So what’s the solution? I don’t know. But questioning dubious claims—and learning to recognize when we’re being manipulated—seems like a good start.