Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How To Lie With Statistics

The other day, everyone's favorite Fake Plastic Fish wrote a blog post about Tapped, a new documentary about bottled water.

And then yesterday, Tom Lauria of the International Bottled Water Association responded writing:
We at IBWA participated in the filming of “Tapped” and were disappointed in how our informative comments were discarded. Do you realize 90% of bottled water companies are small, family-run businesses? According to plastic industry studies of recycling, empty water bottles are the most recycled item in single-stream recycling programs. Blogs like yours should encourage morew recycling and not discourage consumption of water — in any form. Water is fundamentally good for all people. We live in a busy world and have bottled water there when you want, regardless of what you are doing, is always a plus. If people are going to a vending machine, what should they buy? What item in the vending machine is not made of plastic? Since it all must be recycled, why pick on the healthiest beverage available, namely bottled water?

Oh boy. There are SO MANY things wrong with that statement, that it's hard to even know where to begin. But perhaps my favorite is his statement, "90% of bottled water companies are small, family-run businesses."

Oooooh, Tom, you know, I'm a girl who is a sucker for stats, and you totally NAILED me with that sexy, sexy statistic.

Except, number one, we don't know where the stat comes from. Tom doesn't link to a source, so we don't know where his data comes from. A quick Google search reveals that this is a line that the IBWA uses A LOT. In front of Congress, on their website, on YouTube videos. But I could never find the statistic cited anywhere unrelated to the IBWA.

Number two, it's stupid. So what? Most marijuana sellers could call their business a small "family-run" affair, too.

Number three, it's deliberately misleading. 90% of bottled water companies might be small family-owned businesses, but they might only account for 1% of the market share. Meanwhile, the 10% big businesses may well account for 99% of the market share. That's like Minute Maid saying that the lemonade industry is mostly small and family-run because there are thousands of kids with lemonade stands.

So just to clear up the confusion, of the top 10 bottled water brands in 2007, one was owned by Coca Cola, one by Pepsi, and SEVEN by Nestle Waters (a division of Nestle.) Only one was privately owned: Crystal Geyser.

The point is while Tom would like us to believe that the bottled water industry is really just a bunch of mom and pop outfits, that is not the case. But even if it were the case, it's not a real justification for supporting the bottled water industry. However, it is a nice illustration of why we should always be wary when industries trot out statistics, because stats can be spun in deliberately misleading ways.

Protect your right to water. Drink tap.


Sam said...

Hey...you wrote about exactly what I wanted to. It really really ticked me off, that BS "small family run business" line.

Excellent post!

Green Bean said...

Woohoo!!! You go girl! I love the comparison to lemonade-stands and how everyone seems to claim "small business" status these days.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Love your analysis of the data. Why do they just assume that we'll believe what they say as the ultimate truth?

Like Beth would say, "Yes, you're right! I'm going to start drinking bottled water!!! Forget everything that's wrong with plastic and the bottled water industry! La, la, la! Good thing there are companies to tell me what to do!"

Anonymous said...

Great post, Ruchi. You are so good at seeing through B.S. and calling it what it is.

Lee said...

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I'm wondering when Coca Cola will make a bid to buy the public water systems, meself.

I can just see it, ten years from now: "Drink tap, drink Coke."

Great post.

Karina said...

Great post! If he were a wizard, he'd definitely work for Voldemort. Previous job? Tobacco spokesperson.