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Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Publisher’s Note: If you didn’t read the last column yet titled, “The Most Significant, Least Discussed Part of Tuesday’s Marathon Meetings” then I suggest you go to that prior to reading this one.


Two governing philosophies exist: that elected officials should vote in a way that reflects their constituency or that elected officials should vote in a way that they feel is personally best to them, and this was on display Tuesday when the commission twice voted against the positions the vast majority of the public input in the meeting advocated for.


On the surface, this looks like a reason to be outraged. The people once again were ignored! Chairman Ron Kitchen is notorious for counting how many people speak for and against each side, and has often hinted that the count at least partially factors into his decision making.


Chairman Kitchen was also the only commissioner to vote with the majority of speakers both times. Every other commissioner displayed the second style of governing and bucked the majority at least once, in Commissioners Holly Davis and Jeff Kinnard’s case twice, in favor of their own personal belief.


As aggravating as it is for those politically engaged who feel like their efforts were ignored, this latter style exhibited by four of the five commissioners is what I agree with most.


Chairman Kitchen’s philosophy of governing is reminiscent of an old satirical saying in politics, “there go the people, and I must follow them for I am their leader.” The rebuttal to this saying is easy to spot. “They work for us! I pay their salary so they need to represent my voice!”


There’s a lot of emotion packed into those statements so let’s remove the subjectivity and look at this a bit more objectively through the use of numbers.


If you read the previous column, you’ll remember a fictional U.S. senator from a TV show who gets voted out over a position he holds so he chooses to respect his constituents’ wishes and abstains from voting during a lame duck session.


This West Wing situation isn’t exactly apples to oranges because an election is far more representative than a handful of people who show up to a meeting.


Anything less than a sample size of 100 for a population of over a multi-thousand is generally disregarded by statisticians and at minimum 325 people would need to be polled at random to accurately represent where a county of our size stands.


And the sample would have to be done randomly. This part is important.


Assuming the people who are motivated to show up are representative of the county at-large also has serious statistical conclusion validity issues but a deep dive explanation into SCVs your eyes glaze over pretty quickly. Trust me, it did for me during my time learning statistics in UF’s doctoral curriculum.


It’s not just a problem in governmental decision making. Dr. Jonathan Haidt, New York University psychologist, proposed that social science often gets into trouble from using sample sizes that are WEIRD. His acronym here is western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic.


The argument is that the experience of a 17-year-old upper-middle class white girl living in the Chicago suburbs who is about to attend Northwestern and answer academic surveys from social psychologists is going to be have a much different experience than a 17-year-old Afghan girl who just spent her last year adjusting to the new culture imposed by a Taliban-controlled state. Even if the person in the first example was a 14-year-old black male in the projects of Harlem, the experience is still likely going to be much different from a global counterpart.


The same goes for meeting attendees, although I think they are a little weird in the traditional definition of the word. Kidding aside, meeting attendees are at the very least motivated to be there rather than a representative sample of what the true majority thinks.


The only way true representation of the majority is going to work is by taking a large, but still imperfect, poll every so often that we call elections. If you don’t like what they’ve done, vote for someone else. Term limits would help too though it hasn’t been a huge problem at the commission level.


This might all feel like a lot of what Mark Twain called lies, damned lies and statistics, a use of numbers to bolster an otherwise weak argument, but elections are the best barometer and everything else should be left to the individual in the chair.


We can give our officials a little trust that they do have the county’s best interest in mind when they are making incredibly difficult decisions, even if the result is what we disagree with.


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