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Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists

Joel Best
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Damned Lies and Statistics
    Book Description:

    Here, by popular demand, is the updated edition to Joel Best's classic guide to understanding how numbers can confuse us. In his new afterword, Best uses examples from recent policy debates to reflect on the challenges to improving statistical literacy. Since its publication ten years ago,Damned Lies and Statisticshas emerged as the go-to handbook for spotting bad statistics and learning to think critically about these influential numbers.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95351-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. INTRODUCTION The Worst Social Statistic Ever
    (pp. 1-8)

    The dissertation prospectus began by quoting a statistic—a “grabber” meant to capture the reader’s attention. (A dissertation prospectus is a lengthy proposal for a research project leading to a Ph.D. degree—the ultimate credential for a would-be scholar.) The Graduate Student who wrote this prospectus* undoubtedly wanted to seem scholarly to the professors who would read it; they would be supervising the proposed research. And what could be more scholarly than a nice, authoritative statistic, quoted from a professional journal in the Student’s field?

    So the prospectus began with this (carefully footnoted) quotation: “Every year since 1950, the number...

    (pp. 9-29)

    Nineteenth-century Americans worried about prostitution; reformers called it “thesocial evil” and warned that many women prostituted themselves. How many? For New York City alone, there were dozens of estimates: in 1833, for instance, reformers published a report declaring that there were “not less than 10,000” prostitutes in New York (equivalent to about 10 percent of the city’s female population); in 1866, New York’s Methodist bishop claimed there were more prostitutes (11,000 to 12,000) than Methodists in the city; other estimates for the period ranged as high as 50,000. These reformers hoped that their reports of widespread prostitution would prod...

  7. 2 SOFT FACTS Sources of Bad Statistics
    (pp. 30-61)

    A child advocate tells Congress that 3,000 children per year are lured with Internet messages and then kidnapped. Tobacco opponents attribute over 400,000 deaths per year to smoking. Antihunger activists say that 31 million Americans regularly “face hunger.” Although the press tends to present such statistics as facts, someone, somehow, had to produce these numbers. But how? Is there some law enforcement agency that keeps track of which kidnappings begin with online seductions? Are there medical authorities who decide which lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking, and which have other causes, such as breathing polluted air? Who counts Americans...

  8. 3 MUTANT STATISTICS Methods for Mangling Numbers
    (pp. 62-95)

    Not all statistics start out bad, but any statistic can be made worse. Numbers—even good numbers—can be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Their meanings can be stretched, twisted, distorted, or mangled. These alterations create what we can callmutant statistics—distorted versions of the original figures.

    Many mutant statistics have their roots in innumeracy. Remember that innumeracy—difficulties grasping the meanings of numbers and calculations—is widespread. The general public may be innumerate, but often the advocates promoting social problems are not any better. They may become confused about a number’s precise meaning; they may misunderstand how the problem has...

  9. 4 APPLES AND ORANGES Inappropriate Comparisons
    (pp. 96-127)

    The newspaper story reported that, during the first six months of 2000, 56 people had died in traffic accidents in Delaware (the state where I live). Obviously, these deaths were tragedies for the families and friends of the people who died. But is 56 a lot of traffic deaths, a number that should be a focus of public concern? The story featured a chart contrasting the 56 deaths during the first half of 2000 with 1999’s total of 104 traffic deaths. This implied that, if traffic deaths continued at the same pace during the second half of 2000, then the...

  10. 5 STAT WARS Conflicts over Social Statistics
    (pp. 128-159)

    In the early 1980s, missing children became a prominent social problem; their faces appeared on milk cartons, and their stories were featured on television specials. Advocates coupled frightening examples of murdered or vanished children with disturbing statistics: strangers, they claimed, kidnapped 50,000 children each year. In 1985, reporters at theDenver Postwon a Pulitzer Prize for pointing out that the movement’s statistics were exaggerated: they identified a “numbers gap” between the 50,000 estimate and the roughly 70 child kidnappings investigated annually by the FBI. In response, one activist testified before Congress: “I don’t think anything has surprised me more...

    (pp. 160-171)

    There are cultures in which people believe that some objects have magical powers; anthropologists call these objects fetishes. In our society, statistics are a sort of fetish. We tend to regard statistics as though they are magical, as though they are more than mere numbers. We treat them as powerful representations of the truth; we act as though they distill the complexity and confusion of reality into simple facts. We use statistics to convert complicated social problems into more easily understood estimates, percentages, and rates. Statistics direct our concern; they show us what we ought to worry about and how...

    (pp. 173-186)

    In the spring of 2011, almost exactly ten years after this book first appeared, Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl, speaking on the Senate floor, declared: “If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” Anticipating that this sound bite was likely to became fodder for late-night comedians and fact-checking websites, the senator’s office quickly distributed a statement explaining that the remark “was not intended to be a factual statement but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood . . . does subsidize abortions.” This clarification, in turn, attracted further...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 187-201)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 203-206)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 207-207)