I’ve been a pretty big sports fan my whole life, and with that comes a lot of numbers in a variety of sports: batting average, points per game, field goal percentage, completion percentage, on base percentage, quarterback rating… the list goes on and on. There is no end to the amount of statistics that are tallied for sports. As I grew deeper in knowledge of sports, particularly football and basketball, I learned how misleading the typical box score stats could be. For example, it may make a fantasy football nerd happy that his quarterback threw for 365 yards, but if it took him 55 attempts to get there for a mediocre 6.6 yards per attempt, that very well might have been the defense’s gameplan all along to allow that kind of passing yardage. In other words, a fantasy football geek may be ecstatic, but the quarterback’s actual team is not because they lost. Also, I’ve learned that most fans don’t have the faintest clue how the quarterback rating is computed. Since a lot of fans don’t know this, they easily misinterpret what the passer rating is telling them in a given game or over a given season and make bad judgments based on this.
There is a reason why one of Mark Twain’s most famous quotes is, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” Statistics naturally have the rhetorical force of objective, plain, and irrefutable fact because they are numbers, yet they are easily manipulated to say what people want if listeners are not wary. If this is true in something as ultimately unimportant as sports, you can bet politicians and organizations, on both sides of the aisle, will gleefully use statistics-laden sound bytes to try to control narratives. This is not to say that statistics are useless; they are quite useful, but they must be understood with context and with some knowledge of how they are arrived at.
The most recent politically-driven statistic, which actually isn’t that recent but is simply getting more recent attention, is Planned Parenthood’s claim that only 3% of what they do are abortions. With Planned Parenthood under fire due to the release of these videos depicting them selling baby parts, this number has been bandied about more and more by advocates who are fighting against PP getting publicly defunded. Like all good misleading stats, this number is correct… in a certain manner of speaking. However, when one digs deeper into how this number is calculated, it loses all of its persuasive force and instead makes Planned Parenthood and its advocates look desperate and disingenuous.