Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Useful Skeptic

Jack Shafer of the online magazine Slate has been a longtime, thoughtful, and valuable skeptic about numbers often bandied about in the media -- numbers pertaining to matters such as the incidence of "meth" use, child kidnapping, the accuracy of various kinds of putative "deception detectors," and the like. His most recent article More Mythical Numbers (August 16, 2006) further documents the lack of documentation for estimates of the number of victims of human trafficking.

Keep it up Jack!

As I recall, Shafer was equally skeptical of inflated claims about:

  • hunger in America

  • One Massachusetts organization managed to get such figures very high by defining (it told me) "hungry children in Massachusetts" with the number of children in Massachusetts who experienced two or more "episodes of hunger" in a given calendar year.
  • child abuse in America

  • I recall that the "statistics" bandied about one year seemed to suggest that 25% or more of all children had been "abused" in any given year. Many organizations got child and wife abuse figures into the stratosphere by adopting very broad definitions of "abuse" or -- just as often -- by quoting the figures made up by some self-professed and oft-quoted "expert."
  • Bad things -- child abuse etc. -- do happen, of course. But if we want to say how often such bad things happen, let's use good numbers. So let's actually count -- carefully. And when we do count, let's be quite clear about what is being counted.