Lies, damned lies, statistics and inequality metrics

One of the more interesting debates out there right now is not so much about telling lies as it is about which statistics to use for measuring if we're making the world a better place. Metrics on poverty tell us we're making progress, yet wealth inequality is increasing in most parts of the world. Metrics tell us we're producing more food on the planet than ever before, yet more than a billion will go to bed tonight hungry.

As Mark Twain once said (though he attributed the phrase to Benjamin Disraeli): “There are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies and statistics.”

One of the more interesting debates out there right now is not so much about telling lies as it is about which statistics to use for measuring if we’re making the world a better place. Metrics on poverty tell us we’re making progress, yet wealth inequality is increasing in most parts of the world. Metrics tell us we’re producing more food on the planet than ever before, yet more than a billion will go to bed tonight hungry.

The point is that what, or how, you measure these inequities and problems can provide factually correct assessments and still be misleading.

Max Fisher of the Washington Post has written (a few days ago) and excellent report on different ways of measuring income inequality. As Fisher notes, the US is one of wealthiest and also most unequal countries in the world – the worst (if you think inequality is bad) among all wealthy nations.

Income Inequality map

Says Fisher:

“The United States doesn’t come out of this comparison looking great. It’s ranked 44th out of 86 countries, well below every other developed society measured. It’s one spot below Nigeria, which has some of the worst political corruption in the world and in 2012 saw nationwide protests over perceived income inequality. The United States’ Palma ratio ranks it just beneath Nigeria but above Russia and Turkey — all countries that have experienced heavy political unrest in recent years.”

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.