Fake News. And the importance of numbers

Or rather, the importance of all the numbers.

This is not a political blog. On the other hand, I am a firm believer in facts. There is an objective truth out there. And the world can, more or less, be explained by numbers. And when facts and numbers are weaponized in political struggles, well, it’s hard to avoid wandering in to dangerous territory.

And with that disclaimer out of the way. Recently I saw a graphic making the rounds on Facebook. A simple table listing median household income in the US by race. The numbers are said to come from the US Census Bureau.

The idea is to document that “white privilege” does not exist. “See all the people that are not white, who makes more money than whites”.

Could this be true? As a european, my expectation would be, that white, caucasian, americans are in general terms better off than, for lack of a better word, non-whites, in the US (see, this is dangerous territory, what words do I dare to use?).

One of the great things about US federal institutions is that they generally provides quite free access to their data. I did not have the patience to learn how to navigate their website. Someone at Wikipedia did. And have made this nifty table.

I’m not going to copy all the data. There’s a LOT. But there is three tables. Median household income by race, by ancestry, and by native american tribe. Let us take a look at the first:

Rank Race Median household income (2015 USD)
1 Asian-American 91,440
2 White 59,698
3 Native Hawaiian and other pacific islander 55,607
4 Some other race 42,461
5 American Indian and Alaska Native 38,530
6 Black or African American 36,544

The numbers does not quite match. But “white” at 59,698 USD compares OK with the 60,256 USD in the graphic. The graphic claims that the numbers are from 2014. The Wikipedia numbers are from 2015. Small differences should not throw us off course.

That is more in sync with my expectations. But are the numbers in the table cooked?

Nope. They are actually correct. The next table on Wikipedia lists median household incomes by ancestry. Indian American in the graphic: 101,561 USD. Indian American on Wikipedia: 101,591 USD. Same with Taiwanese. And the others. There is a small detail. The numbers by ancestry appears to come from the 2014 data from the US Census Bureau, and not the 2015. Again, this is a detail. The main point of the graphic is not that Indian Americans make 41,335 USD more than whites, but rather that they make more money. And that Taiwanese Americans do, and that Filipino Americans do and that… well you get the point.

All right, so what is wrong with that table? The thing that is wrong, is that it cherrypicks the data. Let us take a look at the table of median household income by ancestry. Just the first six rows:


Rank Ancestry Income
1 Indian American 101,591
2 Taiwanese American 85,566
3 Filipino American 82,389
4 Australian American 81,452
5 Israeli American 79,736
6 European American 77,440

I will NOT be dragged into the battles about what constitutes a race, how white you should be to be considered white or the whole topic of trans-racialism.
But in the context of the original table, “European American” is rather white. And when we get to “Danish American” (median income 68,558 USD) we are, statistically speaking, talking about people who are very white.

Conclusion: It is not enough to check that the numbers are correct. You also need to check that you have all the numbers.