Thursday, February 16, 2006

Half the time politicians are wrong

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:40 AM |  

If the question is “How many people work in Minnesota state government?” and the answer is “About half,” how many people actually are employed by Minnesota state government?

Can’t figure that out? Remember the statistical fallacy?

In my column noting how failure to understand statistics leads policy makers to bad decisions, I cited this reference from a Pioneer Press column --
As we learned last fall when Congress tightened the bankruptcy laws for the benefit of credit card companies, about half of the people who file for bankruptcy do so because of illness or medical costs.”
My point is, that without a baseline number (the number of people are affected by medical bankruptcies), it is impossible to formulate a reasonable policy and more likely that any policy developed would exceed the extent of the problem.

So, on today’s Pioneer Press Opinion Page we read from State Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL - Minneapolis) and Representative Ray Cox (R - Northfield) this gem --
As state legislators, we are proud to help Minnesota be a leader once again. We now know that the technology is available to reduce mercury emissions by up to 90 percent from Minnesota's largest source — coal-burning power plants. Last year, we sponsored legislation aimed at doing just that. Each year, Minnesota's coal-burning power plants alone spew about half of all of the mercury generated here. That has to stop.

The bills call for a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions from these plants between 2009 and 2011. A bipartisan group of legislators signed onto the bill last year. We hope even more of our colleagues from both parties will sign onto new bills that we are introducing this year.
Again, the question is “How much is half of all mercury generated here?” Is 90 percent of that number significant? What are the collateral consequences of reducing the raw number by 90 percent versus 85 percent, versus 25 percent?

The point is, the Dibble/Cox Op-Ed piece uses statistics to mislead rather than inform. They write an Op-Ed piece that simply lists their talking points without actually refuting any statements of fact about the quantities and cost of the 90 percent proposal. It’s a diatribe, not an argument. They may or may not be correct, but this opinion piece doesn’t support their case.