You have heard it every time you have heard a US politician up for election. Being tough on crime gets you elected. So forget the truth, it’s time for conflation!
Conflation is when you take data from different sources and blend them into a statement that appears, on the surface to be correct. It seems right. Who’s going to challenge it? And if anyone tries to challenge it just bury them in statistics.
So the US politician will wade into the debate saying that “we need to get tough on repeat offenders” and nobody will argue with that.
Then they say “our jails are overflowing with repeat offenders” and nobody will argue with that. The prisons of the USA are the product of the plea bargain system where you throw the book at an offender and have them plead to a misdemeanor and let them walk, first time out. So the prisons ARE overflowing with repeat offenders.
Then they move into conflation. “Men of colour are proportionally the majority prisoners in our jails”. The audience nods. The audience assumes the candidate just said “Most of the prisoners are black”. But he didn’t.
He took a couple of different statistics and sort of blended them together into a statement that, while not an outright lie, is intended to misdirect you.
THIS IS THE BORING BIT THAT YOU WILL NOT WANT TO READ:
In the USA the Black people make up about 13% of the population. Black people make up about 37% of the prison population. Black people have an incarceration rate 4 times higher than white people in the USA.
So how can this political candidate say 37% is the majority?
Well, he kept the word “proportionally”. In long worded terms he is saying that if you took 10,000 Black men and 10,000 white men and 10,000 Hispanic men and filled a prison from these 30,000 men you would find that 45 prisonners are white, 83 are hispanic and 231 are black. So man for man, in a prison population of 359 people 64% would be black. If the USA poplation was divided equally by the 3 races, which it is not.
This is the kind of maths that easily sells the public on harsh sentencing and larger prisons. Especially when the public are white voters. These are the kind of conflated statistics that sound very real. They just seem to be right. Every time you turn on the TV and see inside a prison what do you see? A LOT of black folks.
This same process of conflating different statistical sets can be used to confuse any argument. It is a very popular tool with populist politicians who tend to represent more marginalised and less educated people in society. If you just lost your job to a Romanian immigrant you WANT to believe that 80% of Romanians are here illegally. You WANT to believe that they are criminals. So when someone hands you those statistics on a plate you eat them up.
If you live in a small rural village in the West of Ireland and you hear that 200 Syrian refugees are arriving next week to live in the closed hotel what is your first assumption. Do you believe that 50% of the Syrian adults have 3rd level education? Or do you believe that 10% of the young males have been radicalised by Islamic fundamentalists? I can conflate statistical sets to sell either side. But you, as a reader, which will you consume?
It is a technique of marketing also. Nowhere better than in marketing of weight loss products. How do you get fat? By eating lots of fat. So if you cut fat out of your diet you will lose fat! Here is our sugar, it is 100% fat free. They have conflated the fat on your waist with the fat in your diet. Which is a bit like saying that bats can fly, so watch out for flying baseball bats.
How can you spot conflation?
A trick is to tell yourself to look for the kid in the china store. You know the kid who went wild and broke all the china? Seems correct?
It was a Bull in a china shop. And it was a kid in a candy store.
One a metaphor for a pending disaster, the other for unbridled excitement.
Conflate them and suddenly you have a kid in juvenile court facing a charge of vandalism.