Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Joy Of Statistics

This article needs some serious editing. The AP should know better.

The headline is the only real problem I have with the article: It boasts "Ill. faces 66 percent tax boost amid budget crisis." First off, technically, it is 100% true. But it's also massively misleading. 

The tax rate they are referencing is the income tax rate. Illinois has a very low tax rate because they have a much higher tax rate in other ways (mostly sales and property tax), so right off the bat, this is a tax raise on a very small component of their overall tax system.

Secondly, the 66% figure is misleading. The state income tax is being raised from 3% to 5%, which, technically, is a 66% increase. Framing it in that manner for a figure so low, however, is meaningless--66% seems like a huge number, but it really isn't. Look at it this way: had it been raised from 1% to 2%, the tax rate just doubled. If they had dared to raise it from 0% to 1%, that's a tax increase of infinity percent! But for all practical purposes the changes are reasonably minor. The headline writer clearly wanted people to click on the article thinking that some state just increased all of its taxes to 66%. 

I'm not saying this is an easy thing to do, since usually percentages are preferable than absolute values when writing articles. But percentages can be manipulated just as much as any other data. I don't think it was intentional in this case, but it doesn't convey any meaningful information as is. And the reporter only has one job, and that is to convey information in a manner that gets the correct idea across. 

Normally, I would think that readers would figure it out. But I know a lot would just glance at the headline and not get to the halfway point in the article, which spells out the details. 

Update: I happened to catch Fox News, which screamed the exact same headline. It's good to know that regardless of political ideology, scaring viewers with misinformation is something they can all agree on.

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