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Tim Myers: Take what our leaders tell us with a grain of salt

Myers Musings

Posted: February 13, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 13, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Conflation: The act of bringing together, melding or fusing. - Free Online Dictionary.

A new term today: Conflation. Really we will discuss and describe the longer term now referred to in shorthand form as "conflation": "Ambiguous conflation." From every college student's friend, Wikipedia:

"The result of conflating concepts may give rise to fallacies of ambiguity, including the fallacy of four terms in a categorical syllogism."

For example, the word "bat" has at least two meanings: a flying animal and a piece of sporting equipment (such as a baseball bat or a cricket bat). If these two meanings are not distinguished, the result may be the following categorical syllogism, which may be seen as a joke (pun):

1. All bats are animals.
2. Some wooden objects are bats.
3. Therefore, some wooden objects are animals.

Political pundits and demagogues use ambiguous conflation, sometimes inadvertently, to make a point not actually supported by the examples cited, particularly in the area of economics.

An example: The U.S. dollar falls in value in relation to other currencies. Some pundit might conflate this with a weakening of the U.S. economy. Conflation!

A weakened dollar reduces the ability of consumers to purchase imported goods.

However, it reduces the price of goods produced locally for internal consumption (think automobiles and aircraft) and for export (think high-value services, technology design and aircraft).

Therefore, one should not conflate the relative value of currency with economic health, since, like the weather, it results in good for some and bad for others.

Now in the Santa Clarita Valley, our elected, appointed and professional government types love conflation, and they love to put it into press releases that are sometimes published by local media.

The city loves to do this with crime "statistics," which recently (allegedly) said that crime rates in the city stood at "historic lows."

First, never mind that the FBI, which compiles the crime numbers, says all over its website and in its releases of information that no one should use these numbers to make comparisons, since they do not comprise a complete data set tested with statistical rigor.

Of course, everyone immediately makes comparisons. In the case of local crime numbers, local bloggers challenged the assertion of "historic lows" with a more viable conclusion of "crime remains at mercifully low levels impacted by short-term fluctuations up or down." That headline just does not zing!

But for all the skill of the city in conflation, they look like Single-A baseball players against the major league conflation of the William S. Hart Union High School District. Every year, one sees the ambiguous conflation of comparing Hart district academic measurement numbers against state and county averages.

After saying about 100 times that this does not constitute a valid comparison, and even doing the district's work for them and determining that the Hart district actually compares favorably to the more comparable districts of Ventura and South Orange County, the Hart functionaries persist in this conflated reporting.

But I cannot stand silent against the latest conflation of the Hart District's external auditor's report described in a Signal article on Jan. 25, 2010, when the Hart district and College of the Canyons described getting the "highest marks" possible on their annual financial audits with an "unqualified" opinion.

This constitutes a conflation by the district management of an auditor's report with normal academic grading.

The "highest mark" intimates that the district received an "A" on its financial reporting, something that only 10 to 15 percent of students or school districts might earn.

The facts: An auditor's report of "unqualified" constitutes a passing grade given to about 95 percent of the entities receiving an external audit report.

In other words, the external auditor provides a passing grade of "C," concluding the numbers reported are materially correct and the entity possesses adequate financial controls to prevent material errors.

Make no mistake, this amounts to a much better outcome than a "qualified" opinion which means material exceptions exist to the twin assertions above so that one might think the entity barely passed, receiving a "D."

Even worse, one might receive an adverse opinion or failure to get an opinion, which means the external auditor can place no faith in the numbers reported in the entity's financials.

So while getting an unqualified opinion does constitute a relief, it is certainly not sending anyone off to Stanford with a full scholarship anytime soon.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Myers Musings" appears Sunday in The Signal.



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