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Jewish World Review June 28, 2001 / 7 Tamuz, 5761

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

Lying statistics -- "EVERY year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled." Did you know that? It is just as well if you did not, because it is not true.

It takes no research to prove that it is not true. If there had been just two children in America gunned down in 1950, then doubling that number every year would have meant that, by 1980, there would have been one billion American children gunned down -- more than four times the total population of the United States at that time.

Yet the claim that was quoted did not come from some supermarket tabloid. It appeared in a reputable academic journal. It is one of innumerable erroneous statistical claims generated by advocates of one cause or another. Too often, those in the media who are sympathetic to these causes repeat such claims uncritically until they become "well-known facts" by sheer repetition.

During the "homelessness" crusades of the 1980s, for example, homeless advocate Mitch Snyder made up a statistic about how many millions of homeless people there were in this country and threw it out to the media, which snapped it up and broadcast it far and wide. This fictitious number was repeated so often, and was so widely accepted, that people who actually went out and counted the homeless found that it was they who were discredited when their totals differed radically from Mitch Snyder's arbitrary number.

Only belatedly did some major media figure -- Ted Koppel on "Nightline" -- actually confront Mitch Snyder and ask the source of his statistic. Snyder then admitted that it was something he made up, in order to satisfy media inquiries. Moreover, homeless advocates defended what Snyder had done and called it "lying for justice."

People have been lying for centuries. What makes their statistical lies so dangerous today is that so many people in the media are ready to accept and broadcast statistics turned out by activist groups with an axe to grind -- when those groups share the liberal-left orientation of the media.

Considering how many millions of dollars the TV networks pay their anchormen, surely they could spare a few bucks to hire some professional statisticians to examine the statistics that are constantly being turned out by activists, before broadcasting them as "facts." But don't hold your breath waiting for the networks to become responsible.

Hysteria sells -- and accuracy takes time, which could make the news stale by the time the statisticians check it out. However, some of the claims are so ridiculous that all it would take would be to do what Ted Koppel did, ask what the data are based on.

Meanwhile, whole organizations and movements are in the business of trying to alarm the public -- radical feminists, environmental extremists, race hustlers, "consumer advocates" and many more. Wild statistics help them get free publicity in the media and help stampede politicians to "do something," usually by spending the taxpayers' money to deal with a manufactured "crisis."

False statistics are only part of the problem. Even accurate statistics can be given misleading emphasis. The U.S. Bureau of the Census seems dedicated to producing statistics that emphasize differences between groups -- black and white, men and women, etc. -- and far less interested in statistics which indicate how much all Americans have progressed over time.

For example, in the Census' Current Population Report number 60-209, with voluminous statistics on all sorts of "income inequality," there is just one sentence saying that the real per capita income of whites increased by 13 percent in a decade, while that of blacks increased by 24 percent. That, apparently, is not a "politically correct" message about American society.

Perhaps the greatest distortions of statistics involve comparisons between "the rich" and "the poor" -- who are mostly the same people at different stages of their lives. Most of those who were in the bottom 20 percent in 1975 were also in the top 20 percent at some point over the next 17 years. That too is not a "politically correct" message, so you seldom hear it.

The one thing that all these distortions and falsifications of statistics have in common is their thrust in the direction of creating artificial "problems" and "crises" to be dealt with by imposing government "solutions." That is apparently what makes them so attractive to the media that these shaky numbers are uncritically accepted and proclaimed to the public.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate