Televangelist Jim Bakker thinks he’s onto something. “You want to see a chart that will blow your mind?” he asked his viewers last month. He held up a piece of paper with a graph on it, and pointed to a dip. “You see what this is?” he asked. “That’s the election of Donald Trump.”
No really, you can see it for yourself:
Jim Bakker claims that Trump 's election corresponded to a global drop in earthquakes. pic.twitter.com/xjcw4lgf8y
— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) November 25, 2019
I took a screenshot of the page he holds up:
Now, Right Wing Watch was quick to note that this graph appears to contain fake data. The number of earthquakes worldwide did not in fact tank in 2016. In fact, while not any kind of all-time high, the number was actually slightly higher than either 2015 or 2017.
I think I know what happened. If you watch the video really slowly and carefully, you’ll note that the labels on the left of the graph labeled such that the graph actually starts—at the bottom of the chart—at zero (this is not the case for every chart). In other words, the chart indicates that there were zero earthquakes in 2016. I suspect that whoever generated that chart forgot to input the data for that year—or accidentally deleted it—resulting in this graph.
Do you know what I would do if I were a statistician and were handed this graph? I would double check my data. One year being off by that far is odd, and it’s possible that it might be explained by … a typo. Or an incorrectly typed excel formula. But no! Bakker’s staff thought it was a-okay and passed it on to him, and he didn’t feel the need to double check it either.But even if this graph were correct—if there were miraculously no earthquakes in 2016—I still have questions. Outside of the scientific questions I might have, I mean.
Barack Obama was still president for all of 2016. The election didn’t occur until November, at the very beginning of the year. What exactly is the claim here? That God waited until halfway through Trump’s presidential campaign and then paused earthquakes, only to let them resume when Trump’s actually became president? What kind of sense does that mean?
Also, why would God pause earthquakes? Why not pause, say, malaria? Or cancer? And what even would be the point, if no one noticed it? In the Bible, when God sent plagues on Egypt, he did it to make a point—this would have been pointless if no one had even noticed them.
As I ponder this clip, I’m left wondering what it is that makes people susceptible to conspiracy theories. What makes someone so willing to believe something that doesn’t make sense—like the claim that God paused earthquakes in 2016 because of Trump’s election—based on data that is so easily shown to be false?
There are so many other examples of this.
Take the idea that Ukraine conspired to help Hillary Clinton get elected by hacking her party’s emails, for example. How does that even make sense, completely separate from the fact that that is not what the data shows? Jim Bakker’s earthquake claim is humorous in part because it is relatively harmless. Others aren’t.
Unfortunately, it appears to be more profitable to be a huckster than a truth teller. Maybe that has always been the case. FI’m reminded of an article I read recently. Forget STEM, We Need MESH, declared its title. What is MESH, exactly? Media literacy, ethics, sociology, and history. It turns out the humanities and soft sciences are important after all. (And even within a STEM framework,, we could use some stats literacy.)
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