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The Numbers Game Replayed

In 1988, Stephen Budiansky wrote about the "numbers game," or the manipulation of statistical numbers to mislead or...

His examples were both "wonder"ful and concerning:

  • In 1986, a politician claimed the size of the illegal drug-traffic industry was $140 billion. How was it determined? In 1978, a Narcotics Committee put the drug trade at $50 billion. In 1980, this estimate had somehow jumped to $80 billion. The politician reasoned that based on a $30 billion jump in three years, it was reasonable to add $10 billion for each subsequent year...leading to the $140 billion...no other data or justification.
  • In 1987 (before NYLB), almost every state reported that its students scored above the national norm on reading and math tests. The problem: the norm had not been updated for more than 10 years, plus schools self-selected tests that matched their "taught" curriculums.
  • When John Walsh's son disappeared, he initiated campaigns for missing children. Based on conversations with missing-children's organizations nation-wide, he produced the much-cited estimate that there were 50,000 child abductions yearly (led to milk carton appeals). But, over the subsequent four year period when data was gathered, there were only 471 confirmed abduction reports...total!
  • And as last example from 1980, a homeless advocate asked 100 agencies/organizations to estimate the fraction of homeless people in 25 cities and states. The obtained numbers ranged from 0.02% to 1%. When the same percentages were reported in 1982, the advocate claimed "one percent of the population, or 2.2 million people, lacked shelter"...a claim that was reported widely.
All of these stories are somewhat dated...but seem to echo amidst politicians using data to "spin" their position. When are the figures used incorrect, fudged, and misleading...usually always!

Your Task: Read news sources and poltitician's claims, trying to determine fact from fiction...if it is even possible to find the rare fact.

Source: Adapted from U.S. News & World Report, July 11, 1988