Call me skeptical, but having crafted hundreds of surveys that sell, when I hear a "persuasive fact" I want to know who created it, what bias it has, and what its creators are trying to sell me.
Here is one such "fact" I've heard for years, most recently during the 2008 Presidential elections:
"There are more black men in prison than in college."
Do you believe it?
This "fact" was used by several candidates during the 2008 presidential campaign (including the guy who won) and is accepted as as true in many social discussions. But the "fact" is misleading and should not be used. It first was introduced in 2002 as part of a study created by the "Justice Policy Institute", whose stated mission is “to promote effective solutions to social problems and to be dedicated to ending society’s reliance on incarceration.” A high minded organization, but not one without a bias on the topic.
The report compared two government statistics: In 2000, there were 791,600 black men behind bars while only 603,032 were in college. The numbers dramatized the shameful condition of American black men at the time.
But using this "fact" is not appropriate for two reasons:
First off, it is no longer true:
The same government statistics released in 2005 showed 864,000 black men in college and only 802,000 in prison. Still terrible numbers, but progress had been made, and as of 2005, a small majority now go to college.
But the bigger point is that this fact misleads because it is an apples to oranges comparison. Attending college and going to jail are different life experiences that happen in different time frames. A majority of people, black or white, go to college only between ages 18 to 24, whereas the "opportunity” to go to prison can happen throughout adulthood.
The black male population of 2000 had a very high frequency of incarceration. If you compare their frequency of attending college, which would only happen in a four year window, to their frequency of attending prison, which could happen anytime during a lifetime, the comparison will skew toward prison. Just because the statistics of "going to college" and "going to prison" were gathered in the same year does not mean all comparisons between them are valid.
Take this 2007 quote from then presidential candidate, John Edwards:
“We cannot build enough prisons to solve this problem. And the idea that we can keep incarcerating and keep incarcerating — pretty soon we’re not going to have a young African-American male population in America. They’re all going to be in prison or dead. One of the two.”
Even as the basic statement about more young black men going to prison was accurate back in 2000, Edwards is stretching the comparison to mean things it does not.
Working with the 2005 statistics, the fact checkers at the Washington Post did an “apples to apples” comparison of just college age black men, in college and prison, finding that the number of black men in college is actually, "...five times the number of young black men in federal and state prisons and two and a half times the total number incarcerated.”
If you make the "fact" about black men an apples to apples comparison by limiting the sample to just black males of college age, the remaining fact just doesn’t sell:
"There are two and a half times more college age black males attending college, than there are in prison.”
Think about this: this "fact," about more black men going to jail than college was first presented almost 10 years ago by an advocacy group. The "fact" is still influencing decisions today even though it is not true anymore, and was originally based on a bias most people were not aware of.
Again, I state that surveys are the most powerful sales agents on the planet. If you are not using them to advocate your organization’s ideas and products, well, call me skeptical again.