Fuzzy math? No, number abuse!
October 18, 2006
It’s an oldie but a goodie:Question: How do you know when a politician is lying?Answer: His lips are moving.Of course, since this is election season, that gag’s not quite true anymore. Politicians this time of the year are busy lying in their campaign ads.These days, I confess, I pretty much just ignore the political ads. I assume they’re all lies.What I’m really talking about are the attack ads. If you pay attention to them, the attacks seem undeniable. The opponents’ sins seem truly awful. Then, later on, you always find out that the attack was all based on a lie. Usually a very clever lie.So now I don’t pay attention. I hear the attacks, and I assume there’s a lie in there somewhere.There always is.OK. None of this is news to any of you. Political back-stabbing and dirty tricks have been around pretty much forever. (See: Caesar, Julius; “Et tu, Brute?”)Here in Aspen, fortunately, dirty politics has usually been limited to name-calling rather than actual lies. That’s one of the blessings of small-town politics. Everybody knows everybody, so lies don’t have a lot of legs.Maybe that’s why I’ve been bothered by some of the nonsense that’s been spouted in the race for Pitkin County sheriff.I’m talking about all the recently cited crime statistics that “prove” what a rotten job Sheriff Bob Braudis has been doing.I know it’s probably not even worth mentioning. The challenger who’s behind that avalanche of “statistics” probably doesn’t stand a chance.But, still, it bothers me when we slip across the line that separates good, clean, obnoxious name-calling from serious distortion.The challenger (aided and abetted by a local radio talk show host who really ought to pay a little more attention to what he’s saying) has been claiming that Braudis’ approach to drug issues is turning this county into a cesspool of crime.One of the “statistics” the challenger has been citing is one that “proves” that the county’s rate of drug-related fatalities is higher than almost any big city in the country.Yikes! Sounds bad.But here’s the thing: Those numbers are based on “drug-related fatalities per million residents.” So you divide the number of deaths per year by the number of Pitkin County residents, multiply that result by about 66 (to adjust our roughly 15,000 residents to a number per million) and … ta-da! We’re a cesspool of crime and drug abuse.But that set of calculations misses the fact that for much of the year, our actual population is swollen nearly double by visiting tourists (not to mention second-home owners) … some of whom are undoubtedly out there partying hard and contributing to those “statistics.”Well, if you double the population, you cut the “rate per million” in half.And the same thing is true for the drunken-driving fatality rate – also being touted by the challenger as an example of Braudis’ lax enforcement. And even without adjusting our population numbers to account for all those hard-partying visitors, using comparisons in “deaths per million” really isn’t very valid when you’re comparing a place with a population of 15,000 (or adjusted, let’s say, 25,000) to a city with a population of a few million. The actual numbers of deaths are so small that the figures just aren’t worth much. The New York City area has something close to 1,000 drug-related fatalities a year. Pitkin County has two or three. If we have one additional death, it can show up as a 50 percent increase.The way they’re throwing “statistics” around is number abuse.As I said, it probably doesn’t make any difference in the election.And, yes, obviously, I think Bob Braudis is a damn good sheriff – though he and I have had some serious disagreements over the years.But, really, can’t we at least try to get back to good, clean name-calling and keep our politics honest … and maybe even a little intelligent. Or is that too much to ask?Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.