Outside the Box
Obfuscation: An Admission of Guilt
Dr. Charles Ormsby
In our July edition, I wrote an
article entitled Snookered
that analyzed a highly questionable pro-override campaign
postcard distributed by North Andover United (NAU) just
days before our recent override vote (See figure below).
The groups postcard cited home sales statistics for
Andover and North Andover since 2002 and used this data
to encourage voters to approve the $1.65 million
override. In our August issue, Sandy Gleed, Chairman of
NAU, published a rebuttal claiming Dr.
Ormsby has it wrong.
Two claims were made by the pro-override people in their
1. That North Andover home values have suffered a 19%
decline relative to Andover, AND
2. That the cause of this decline is under-funded
schools and highly-publicized conflicts.
My Snookered article focused on the first
claim, because it would be pointless to debate the
cause of a decline if there was no decline to be
explained. To summarize, I made the following four key
points in Snookered and backed them up by
sound analysis and data:
1. The purported decline in home values suggested by
override supporters was largely due to their selection of
a demonstrably unrepresentative starting point. Their
selected starting point (2002/03) was the only year
during which the average sales price of North Andovers
homes came close to that of Andovers (2% below).
The average sales price in North Andover for the two
years before 2002/03 and the two years after 2002/03 was
11% below that in Andover. Conclusion: Override
supporters selected 2002/2003 as the starting point to
deceive North Andover voters.
2. Simple statistics indicate that the fluctuations in
home sales price data can be completely accounted for by
sampling errors. I pointed out that the data used in the
politically motivated postcard was an average of the
sales prices of only about 5% of the single-family homes
in both towns (~300 homes). Just as polling a sample of
voters yields a polling error (and honest polling
organizations report this margin of error), so will
sampling home sales data. In this case the entire
variation cited by override proponents is within the
margin of error due to sampling.
3. Next, I showed that there is a systematic variation in
the sales data each year caused by changes in the number
of new residential developments (all very expensive
homes) completed and sold each year. Low and behold, if
you look at the individual homes sold, the override
supporters starting point of 2002/03 included 37
expensive new homes that were completed and sold in North
Andover this was the year the average North
Andover sales price was only 2% less than Andovers.
In the final year (2006/07), when North Andovers
home values looked like they had declined, only 7 new
homes in North Andover were completed and sold. Wow! It
looks like we might have identified why the average sales
price appeared to decline
and it had nothing to do
with taxes or schools or highly-publicized conflicts!
4. Finally, I obtained all single-family
assessed property values from the town assessors
offices in both North Andover and Andover. This data
indicated that there was NO DECLINE in North Andovers
property values when compared to Andovers. In fact,
there may even have been a slight advance in North
Andover values over Andovers between 2004 and 2007
(See nearby figure). Note that the assessors data
is NOT subject to sampling errors; it represents 100% of
the homes, not just a 5% sample. Also, the assessors
data separates out the values of new construction so it
will not corrupt the averages AND it is audited by the
state for accuracy.
Wouldnt you expect the override proponents
rebuttal to respond to these four carefully researched
Which of these four points did they attempt to refute?
NONE! Not a single one.
need to actually defend their choice of starting date.
They need to demonstrate that, in light of the sales data
before and after their selected starting point that it is
representative of sales data of that era. Instead they
just ignored the issue.
Did the pro-override supporters address the fact that the
observed fluctuations in average sales prices can be
completely explained by errors resulting from random
sampling? NO! They just dismissed reasoned analysis as
How anti-intellectual. Is this how they respond to
serious analysis? Is this the attitude they wish to
promote in our schools with the extra tax revenues they
will be extracting from our overburdened citizens?
When did basic statistics become mathematical
gibberish? Should our high school students avoid
taking courses in statistics because it is gibberish?
I cant help it if the leaders of the override
effort are innumerate, but I suggest they not celebrate
their mathematical illiteracy in public.
Snookereds research concerning the
distortions in sales statistics arising from the sale of
expensive homes in new developments (Point #3) and the
analysis of our town assessors data (Point #4) were
not addressed at all. Are these facts too tough to handle
for the override people?
Instead of providing a reasoned rebuttal, override
supporters dodged my arguments by trying to muddy the
water. Here is just a sample of what they said with quick
Override proponents wrote, You dont need a
doctorate from MIT to know that statistics are merely
used to show relationships, not causality.
I agree. This is a point I often make. In this case, it
is the override supporters that are claiming a relative
drop in real estate values and a causal relationship
between school funding and property values not me.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon them to prove their
claims. Their postcard presented data purportedly
supporting the claim that our real estate values declined
by 19% relative to Andovers. The purpose of Snookered
was merely to show that the data they presented does not
support their claim and, in fact, that there is credible
data that contradicts their claim. If the override
supporters argument now merely boils down to Go
ask your real estate agent, then they should admit
that the data they presented was simply designed to
deceive the voters
a deception they now seek to
The pro-override people also wrote, we used data
from reputable, professional sources, implying that
I questioned the source of their data. But I never did.
Quite the contrary, I used data from the very same source
(to determine sales statistics for the two earlier years,
to determine sample sizes, and to determine the number of
homes in new residential developments sold each year) to
demonstrate that their claims were nothing more than
The override leaderships commitment to honesty was
defensible before they wrote their rebuttal when
it was still possible that they were unaware that their
data did not support their claims. After my article made
the facts clear and they could not mount a serious
rebuttal, the override organizers should have been honest
and admitted as much. Instead, they chose to ignore the
facts and distract the readers from the real truth. They
can no longer claim honest intent.
The pro-override supporters conclude their obfuscation
with a lecture to me about my responsibility as a School
Committee member, to improve academic standards in
a positive way. Anyone who has been paying
attention for the last four years knows that I have been
the only School Committee member who has openly and
aggressively challenged our administrators and staff to
raise academic standards and expectations.
So my four points still stand. And the override zealots
are still welcome to address them. One-by-one. Either
disprove them with facts and sound analysis no
gibberish, no obfuscation, no muddying the waters
or fess up.
Further obfuscation will just lead to further
Dr. Ormsby is a member of the N. Andover School
Committee. Hes a graduate of Cornell and has a
doctorate from MIT. You can contact Dr. Ormsby via email:
*Send your questions comments to ValleyPatriot@aol.com
The September 2007
Edition of the Valley Patriot
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