In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, No. 13.) The responsibility is to vote, but also to vote intelligently. We have a responsibility to find our way through the claims, counterclaims, misleading information, exaggerations, etc. to vote for the common good. Here are a few things to consider in preparing for any election.

Diversify

Don't put all your eggs in one basket. This is a principle in investing, hoping that good investments will average out bad ones, but it also holds in the search for the truth. Image: Pants on Fire

Watching just one TV station, or reading just one printed source does not expose you to different views. If you do go to multiple sites, and they disagree, consider checking Factcheck.org or Politifact.com, two web sites that explore claims and rate them as True, False, or even Pants on Fire.

Percents

Consider the base. One time a local newspaper claimed that unemployment had increased 10 percentage points, from 10% to 20%.

Image: PercentagesAnother newspaper said that unemployment had increased in Oakwood County 100%. Which one is correct? They both are!

In the first case, the base is the entire population. In the second case the base is the old figure of 10%. The increase to 20% was a doubling, or a 100% increase

Graphs

Graphs can convey a lot of information, but they can also mislead. In the graph at right, the bar on the right, for the March 31 goal, is roughly 3 times as tall as the bar on the left, for March 27. Image: Demo of a Faulty GraphBut 7,066,000 is NOT 3 times 6,000,000. The problem is there are no vertical axis figures.

If the axis started at zero, the bar lengths would allow a better comparison. This graph makes it appear that the March 27 figures fell way short of the March 31 goal.

Polls

How can they be accurate when they haven�t asked ME?

Polls depend on random sampling and size for accuracy. Image: Polls imageGetting a random ample is difficult. Some polls get too many R's and not enough D's or vice versa. How the question is worded is important, too.

Loaded questions:

  • Do you disagree that cigarette smoking is disagreeable? (What exactly am I disagreeing to?)
  • Would you vote for John Doe if you knew that he did such and such? (Notice that it doesn�t say that he did it. It just plants the idea in your mind. Think this is dirty pool? It's done!)

Correlation Is Not Causation

Just because two things happen together does not mean that one causes the other.

A study in Europe found that the birth rate was correlated with the stork poplation. Those storks must be busy! The best way to show causation is with experimentation. Image: Simpsons imageThis isn't always possible.

Claims of causation have to be assessed carefully. Sometimes there is another variable affecting both things

Beware the Single Number Summary

Probably the most common statistic is the mean (average). But it should be followed by an idea of the variability that went into it. The mean income in Happyville is $60,000. Did that come from a range of $50,000 to $70,000 or a range of $20,000 to $100,000?