Example (Presidents and the Economy). Various statistics concerning the economy have been used to indicate the viability of certain U.S. Presidents’ economic policies. The conclusions reached sound something like “Look! GNP/Unemployment/Whatever went up/down during this president’s tenure; therefore his economic policy was a good/bad one.” This is an example of concluding that correlation implies causation. So what might be a lurking variable here? Who knows, really; each case may have to be examined separately. One problem, however, may be in failing to account for the possibility that the economy was slow to react to the previous president’s policies, and it took until the next president’s time in office to start manifesting itself in the statistics. It may be enlightening to see whether the trend continued in the presidential administration that followed afterward.
Inherent in this example is also the problem of definitions of certain statistics. It’s easy to twist definitions and make yourself look good with statistics, even if you are honestly trying to be fair. It may have to do with how our use of statistics tends to blanket things with a one-size-fits-all definition. Take unemployment, generally viewed as a bad thing. If its rate decreases, things are supposedly getting better, because more people have jobs. But there may be an underlying assumption, such as that all jobs are more or less equal. Are things really better? Are all the new jobs actually satisfactory, or are those who were unemployed before now just “underemployed?” Are the new jobs really jobs, or do they more aptly fit the description “glorified welfare?” Are people simply being paid to do nothing of importance with money taxed away from other people?
Yet all of this is usually swallowed up in an overly-succinct presentation of data. While one might indeed ask what all the new jobs being formed are, the answer is not readily apparent from the presented results; the only thing that is available is the bottom line – that is, “unemployment is decreasing.” Never mind the means, just the ends, which supposedly justify everything.
Example (“Happiness” Polls). I suppose everybody’s heard, at one time or another, of studies that tried to pinpoint causes of happiness, or just simply tried to determine whether people of a certain demographic were happy. Personally, I’m skeptical about the validity of the results of such studies. For one thing, even if people were asked directly, “are you happy?”, the results might still be very skewed. There may be a bunch of reasons people may want to answer as they do to that question. There may be thoughts about how happy they feel they should be. They might also feel they should answer the question based on how they think the pollster defines happiness. Or perhaps a person doesn’t want to sound like a grouch, even though he is. It could also be that the person actually is happy, even if he has previously convinced himself that he isn’t, or vice versa.
Heck: a person doesn’t necessarily know how happy he really is, especially, say, if he associates happiness with the fleeting pleasures that money can buy. He may find, years later, after he’s had a bit more experience with life, that he wasn’t happy at all in his earlier situation, and that he had been deceiving himself into thinking he was. Even if he hadn’t been frivolously spending his money at the time, but had instead simply felt happy in the security money brought him, only to lose it all by some freak happenstance, he might still be able to find happiness while living in poverty, which happens frequently with inhabitants of underdeveloped countries.
Incidentally, the happiness that impoverished people of those underdeveloped countries are still able to find shows another flaw in these studies, which seem to associate general happiness with monetary affluence. If we think that people have to have all kinds of modern conveniences to be happy, do we think that no people of former ages were happy?
A: Well…such conveniences weren’t available to them, simply because they didn’t even exist.
B: There are undoubtedly many in this world today who know little to nothing about the existence, much less the benefit, of today’s doodads. Are such people always miserable? I doubt it. I suspect they find happiness in much the same way people always have. Quite simply, happiness has never had much, if anything, to do with material possessions.
A: I think the dissatisfaction comes in knowing that there are good things out there, but they aren’t available to them.
B: Ah, covetousness. Did people never have a reason to covet before modern times? Don’t you think serfs of feudal times may have been tempted to covet the lifestyles that nobles and kings had from time to time? Were they miserable their entire lives because they knew that such a lifestyle was unattainable for them? Or did they accept it at a fairly young age, recognizing that such a life of comfort and ease wasn’t all it was cracked up to be anyway, and choose to be happy even while in their poverty? I imagine most of them chose the latter: why live in a state of miserable covetousness, when you can look at the bright side and appreciate the things of life that bring a more lasting happiness, found in such as what things they had that money couldn’t ever buy, like their own families and friends?