Messages, truth and statistics

 By Phil Youngblood

My wife gets mildly annoyed with me when I point out science or computer flaws in movies or television shows. She reminds me they are fiction and suggests I relax and enjoy them.

Hollywood productions do not include “Caution: work of fiction” in their ratings statements. Neither does other media — but it’s not always so obvious for them. News agencies once tossed around the idea they could be unbiased, but the reality is “news” is what happens outside the norm. Most news agencies are businesses which must cater to sponsors and customers, and “news” implies deadlines so journalists often just repeat the ideas or opinions of others.

Throw in politicians, businesses and organizations of all types using mass communications technologies to deliver their messages and you draw the conclusion that what you read, hear and watch may not represent the real world any more than Hollywood productions. I frequently have to remind myself of this.

The reason why people and organizations can get away with representing their messages as truth is that many people accept what they read, hear and watch via mass media. They do not bother to learn something about the subject or differentiate between biased words and statistics.

This semester, I applied these ideas to my freshman computer literacy class. As part of a lesson on how to conduct a critical search on the Web, I used a subject of relevance to them and everyone – the Affordable Health Care Act. I first asked them to research the concept of insurance — a subject most knew little or nothing about — and we discussed it in class. I then asked them to research how this law will affect them personally. Finally, I asked them to explain all the different answers they found on the subject.

I backed up this lesson by having them create budgets using spreadsheets, particularly “living wage” and “secure yet modest” budgets as they apply to San Antonio ,which included deductions (such as taxes, Social Security, Medicare, and other insurances) from their gross pay. Then we discussed where these monies go and what would happen to people who needed assistance if they did not have access to this money.

In a senior class we also applied these ideas by discussing statistics and their relationship to truth. Even more than words we expect numbers to be “true” but they are often used to represent partial truths to support a message. For example, if you view federal spending alone ($3.8 trillion in 2013 versus $590 billion in 1980) you get a partial truth unless you compare it to GDP (23 percent of GDP in 2013, about the same as the early 1980s) because GDP has also grown. If you just break out spending components (Social Security 23 percent, Medicare and Medicaid 23 percent, and Defense 17 percent) and do not analyze these, you get another partial truth. Defense spending has dropped over time (70 percent of the budget in 1970) and Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are all up because life expectancy has increased and medical costs have doubled in the last 10 years. Likewise, if you examine the federal debt you will see it is also similar to what it was during the 1980s and, while individuals have paid increasingly more of their paycheck to fund social programs, corporate taxes have not increased accordingly and have actually declined over recent years.

In 2013 I am writing about the global impact of computer technologies. As always, I welcome your feedback, dialogue and differing opinions on this topic.


E-mail Youngblood, head of the Computer Information Systems program, at

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