JACK SPENCER: The big little word 'If'

Over the past week and a half, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz has been on a hot streak. At one point during a game between the Detroit Tigers and the Red Sox this past weekend it was noted that Ortiz had recorded 19 hits in his most recent 38 at-bats. It doesn’t take a mathematics expert to figure out that means Ortiz’s batting average through the hitting spree at that point was .500 percent.

While that is hitting at an exceptionally prolific clip, no doubt a study of statistics covering the history of baseball would reveal many examples of similar batting performances covering brief periods of time, such as 10 days, a couple of weeks or as much a three weeks. Anyone who understands how percentages even-out in baseball knows that Ortiz will not continue to hit at the torrid .500 percent pace. In fact, the odds against him hitting at even a .400 percent pace over the course of an entire season are overwhelming.

Nonetheless, as was said in reference to American showman P.T. Barnum, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” Should any reader of this column find someone foolish enough to bet real money that Ortiz will continue to bat .500 percent for the remainder of the year; by all means take the bet and plan on collecting.

As obvious as the Ortiz batting average example is to those who understand baseball statistics, virtually the same concept is used repeatedly to successfully mislead thousands. It generally starts with a phrase such as: “If the ice sheet continues melting at the current rate ...” or “If the temperatures continue to increase at the current rate ...”

In such cases, the key thing to focus on is the qualifying word “If,” because it is that small but vitally important word behind which deceivers hide.

This “If factor” was the premise used in the supposedly “scientific” climate change models of the 1990s that predicted the effects of alleged man-made global warming would have us experiencing perpetually milder winters by now. They took a brief 18-year warming trend and projected it outward. The dynamic worked in precisely the same manner that projecting Ortiz’s short term .500 percent batting average over an entire baseball season would.

The East Anglia Climate Research Unit, which had been the global warming alarmist propaganda headquarters for nearly two decades, has now admitted that the “global warming” period began in 1979 and ended in 1997. With that admission, the method of deception behind those 1990s “climate change” models becomes clear. They would have been accurate only “if” temperatures had continued to rise at the presumed rate.

The “climate models” weren’t technically deceptive, they were technically correct. What was deceptive was the likelihood that those who used the models as evidence of global warming deliberately failed to emphasize the significance of the word “If.” It is also likely that they had a pretty good idea that many who heard their dire predictions would fail to appreciate the significance of this “If factor.”

Here’s another way of looking at it; imagine an area receives half an inch of rain on a given Tuesday and then a full inch of rain on Wednesday. It would then be accurate for an alleged expert to say that “If” the rainfall continued to increase at the same rate it had between Tuesday and Wednesday everyone who lived in the area would soon be up to their belt buckles in water.

Upon hearing such as statement, most people would instinctively realize that its meaning totally revolved around the word “If,” and dismiss it as pure conjecture. That’s because we’ve all experienced rainy spells and know they come and go.

But when the topic is more complex and special interests work to exploit it for promoting a given dogma, the word “If” (which is the most important aspect of the whole prediction) gets glossed over or disappears entirely.

This trick of hiding the “If factor” does not pertain exclusively to global warming propaganda. It is used extensively; particularly in advertising and politics.

What gives this style of propaganda a double edge is that no one can accurately say with absolute certainty that a short term trend won’t continue. One can correctly assert only that the odds against it continuing are overwhelming. Just remember, no one can definitely say the world won’t end tomorrow either.

As both voters and consumers, our best approach to all predictions should include a healthy dose of critical thinking and common sense. Always read the small print when someone tries to sell you something.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.