Statistics are often like swimwear: They hide the places you’re most interested in – my father, Nathan van Zuiden

My first reason to doubt any numbers in the press is that journalists may be completely honest, and their editors too, but most of these people chose journalism because they were good at languages and like people. For some reason that I don’t completely understand, proficiency in language and social sciences on the one hand and math and natural science on the other frequently seem mutually exclusive. Because I’m mediocre in both, I regularly find mistakes in numbers in journalists’ texts – in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

The second reason for questionable statistics is that they can be complicated. It’s a specialism in itself. However, a bit of common sense can reveal a lot about the sense or nonsense in stats.

The third reason for mistaken conclusions from data is anything from wishful “thinking” to outright cheating. Yet, when figures are manipulated, often a trace of the truth can still be spotted.

An Example

The item Palestinian Authority: 85% say they want Sharia law reported about a recent opinion poll: “Over 85% (!) said that the Palestinian Personal Status Law must be based on the principles of Islamic Sharia.” This immediately raised my suspicion. So I delved into the details. My intuition was spot-on.

The above quote continued: “Half of these said it must be exclusively Sharia, while the other half said it should be based both on Sharia and civil law. Only 14.7% said it should be based only on civil law.”

That would mean that most of them do not want to live in an open democratic society. Really? Not really! Let’s first not take these figures at face-value.

The “42.5% want only religious law” cannot be what it seems. How were these numbers obtained? Face-to-face interviews at people’s homes. Just imagine: In a police state (the Palestinian Authority) or under a dictatorship (Gaza), where police can lift anyone from their bed, drive them away and torture or kill them, someone comes to your home, says “I’m a journalist and I want to ask you a few questions, totally confidentially.” Would you tell them the truth if that meant that you were critical of the rulers? I wouldn’t. So this 42.5% may mean nothing at all.

How disturbing it would be if most people under Arab Palestinian occupation would in their heart of hearts be for unrestrained Islamic Law. However, if they would believe that Islam is important but should be tempered by Modernity – o, that is a whole different ballgame.

Therefore, the 42.5% that want Religious Law modified by Modernity should be added to the 14.7% who want unbridled Secular Law.

That means:

  • Until 42.5% want only religious law, if any.
  • At least 57.2% (42.5% + 14.7%) want Secular Law, or Secular Law combined with Religious Law.

That means that even under the threat of punishment for their opinion, more than 50% voiced their wish for a Modern System of Law.

That sounds very different from the headline. Same figures, just presented differently, more truthfully.

That is good news and completely the opposite of the heading that seemed to say that these oppressed Arab Palestinians like their political oppression.

And this does not even calculate in, that the journalists and researchers of the poll (working in a police state) may have lied altogether – although lying is such a popular sport in Arab Culture.

For now, I’ll leave the other numbers from the article. I just wanted to show: Never believe numbers before you had a chance to learn some details and had some time to think about them.