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Student Contributions

Elizabeth Edwards
Upper Sixth
West Town

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Lies, damn lies and statistics

"https://cliftoncollegeuk.comAids-related deaths down 21% from peak’, says U.N.Aids"

When I saw this headline, I immediately thought "What brilliant news!" Reading this quickly I interpreted this as meaning that the AIDs epidemic has decreased. What the headline really meant was that ‘globally, the number of new HIV infections in 2010 was 21% down.’ However looking into this further, the actual number of people living with HIV is at a record high (34 million) so although the percentage of new infections is decreasing, the overall number of people with HIV is still increasing.

This got me thinking about how the media can distort their headlines and particularly their statistics to exaggerate or emphasise a point that they’re trying to make. This can often be very misleading and can lead people to misconstrue the information they are given. In particular stats can be reworded to put a whole spin on an otherwise insignificant number. For example if a company with 100 000 employees had to fire 10% of its work force, the media might state this as 10 000 people. Although the figures are the same, the latter sounds more striking. On the other hand if someone stole £10 from a cash register that contained £100, the media might say they stole 10% of that shop’s earnings, which sounds much more dramatic. (Although why they wouldn’t steal the whole 100% is even more of a mystery…)

table showing complaints received by US airlines

Here are some real examples of misleading information found in the media:

These complaints about airlines were published in the US News and World Report in February 2001.

We immediately come to the assumption that the United Airlines is the worst airline and so we should probably try to avoid using it and instead use a company more customer friendly like Alaska Airlines. However what the newspaper doesn’t tell you is that the airlines with the most complaints also had the most customers!

Another report in January 2001 from the US News and World Report unfairly suggests that Alaskans are cruel parents. However how can you define child abuse? In Alaska, the government says that a child is abused if his or her health or welfare is harmed or threatened. In Pennsylvania, the government defines it as a recent act or failure to act. Therefore it’s unsurprising that there is a large range in data, as Alaska classifies child abuse on a much wider scale than Pennsylvania.

Sometimes stats aren’t just misleading but completely falsified or exaggerated in the first place. A favourite fact, first quoted by Times Magazine, that often horrifies Americans, is that an “estimate of 3 million illegal aliens annually cross into the U.S.” This statistic is not correct and yet so many believe it. Border patrollers say they stop around 1 million people from crossing the border every year but estimate that 3 times that many get across. Therefore people come to the alarming assumption that 3 million illegal immigrants enter the U.S every year. However how can we be so sure? Firstly who is to say that those 1 million people, who get apprehended at the border, try just once? This figure may account for many individuals who attempt and fail many, many times to enter the USA. Plus how is it that 3 million people are estimated to cross the border? Yet these people have never been caught and so have never been seen, therefore we can’t know for sure that so many have been successful.

table of statistics of abuse of children in the USA

My final example is a statistic often used for scaremongering among already anxious but often naive parents. Supposedly "more than 20,000 images of child pornography are posted on the internet every week". This very disturbing fact immediately raises doubts in anyone’s mind about the safety of the web. However it was invented in 2003 by, or for, the NSPCC. According to Libertus.net [1] “the number itself is a misrepresentation of COPINE Project research about the number of image files posted into a sub-set of Usenet newsgroups in August/September 2002. The ’statistic’ was invented by inserting the word ‘pornography’ into a phrase originating in COPINE Project research findings: 140917 child images files and dividing the number by six (weeks).”

I hope that this article has shown how when researching articles online you need to be more aware of the ways statistics can be manipulated. Statistics can be purposefully or unintentionally misleading. The media uses them as a way to exaggerate and often validate their story regardless of where the data was sourced. Sometimes the statistics are misinterpreted by the media or altered as the information is spread. Whatever the cause, when reading or listening to the news, it is important to remember:

  • the source of the original statistic
  • any bias or ulterior motives
  • how the statistic may have been manipulated
  • Just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean they are related: cause and effect!

“Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.” This and title quote by Mark Twain.

(Both of the news clippings from:
http://www.econoclass.com/misleadingstats.html)
[1] http://libertus.net/censor/resources/statistics-laundering.html#s3bfg

29 November 2011

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