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Friday, March 4, 2011

Sleight Of Mouth

I am still upset that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo used the bully pulpit of the State of the State Address to intentionally insert a misleading statistic embedded within a political sound-bite to distract the audience and redirect their focus on his perspective of the issue.

Specifically, I am addressing his statement assessing education in New York - "First in spending but thirty-fourth in results." The numbers and the use of the word spending, at a time when the economic crisis casts spending as a nasty word, together with his use of numbers, conspired to produce a sentence that subsequently defined the issue on his terms. This strategy is often referred to in the adage, "You name it, you frame it."

Cuomo was effective in his delivery; capitalizing on the large audience of people in attendance and relying on the media to expand the audience through film, print, and Internet. Given that newspaper editors and television producers recognize that the shortened attention of readers/viewers and the overwhelming blizzard of messages available via the Internet combine to reduce messages to twenty second blurbs on television or big headlines-small articles in the newspaper, Cuomo bet that the 1st but 34th statement would become repeated and repeated as the gold nugget sound-bite.

The phrase certainly was featured in media reports and it echoed throughout the cavernous political terrain left vacant by reason and distanced by time. That is, his 1St and 34th refrain gained traction and ran off before anyone had the opportunity to question his use of the statistic and counter his hollow data.

Mark Twain once opined, "A lie will travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

While it may be true that New York is first in its investment in education, here's a more accurate measure of educational performance by an impartial and objective study featured in Education Week entitled Quality Counts 2010 ( which identifies New York as second in educational achievement among the fifty states.

Let's turn to two of my favorite books to explain why Cuomo's strategy was effective, even if it was incorrect.

First, from Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan and Switzer.

"It's called Representative Heuristic. For example, take a simple quiz. What is the greater cause of death in the world each year? Suicide or homicide? Fire or drowning? Most people select homicides and fires because these are the catastrophes they see more often in the news. Suicides are generally kept quiet for reasons of privacy and fired make for dramatic live coverage. Since we see homicides and fires on the news more often than we see suicides and drownings, we assume that this sample represents the underlying whole, when in fact it greatly distorts it. Death by flood and suicide are more common, but we apply a simple mental heuristic, fall victim to an inaccurate data stream, and rarely do we know that it’s happening.

Since managing the data stream relies on numbers to change people’s cognitive maps (as opposed to personal experience), the data have to be fresh, consistent, and relevant if they’re going to have much of an impact."

Now, let's look at Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.
"Data enforces boundaries.

When it comes to statistics, the best advice is to use them as input, not output. Use them to make up your mind on an issue. Don’t make up your mind and then go looking for the numbers to support yourself.

There are 50% more people who die in the U.S. by suicide each year then by homicide; 9 times more die annually from tuberculosis than from floods; and 80 times more deaths result from asthma than tornadoes. The general public is startled by these points because of what is called “availability bias.” That is a natural tendency that causes us, when estimating the probability of a particular event, to judge the event’s probability by its availability in our memory. People remember things better because they evoke more emotion, not because they are more frequent. People remember things better because the media spend more time covering them (perhaps because they provide more vivid images), not because they are more common.

Researchers found that thinking about statistics shifts people into a more analytical frame of mind. When people think analytically, they are less likely to think emotionally."

I am a magician and so is Cuomo. The difference is, I perform magic for entertainment whereas Cuomo performs magic for political gain. Cuomo’s assertion is wrong on many levels and incorrect in many ways. However, advocates of education may have lost their voice in this battle, overwhelmed by a general public, that when asked to complete the sentence “First in spending but…” will more than likely reply “…thirty-fourth in results.”  It may be too little too late. Unfortunately, those people who will suffer the most from the effect of Cuomo’s claim are too young to vote…

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