Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Statistics in the news-be wary

This morning, I was perusing a thread on freerepublic.com where a poster made the claim that 2 out of 3 women are molested or raped by the time they reach the age of 18. Several other posters challenged this claim, but she wouldn't budge. The poster making the claim stated that she heard the stat on a talk show broadcast over a Christian radio station, so it must be true.

Anytime I hear some sort of statistic that doesn't sound true, I'm reminded of the sage words that radio talker Dennis Prager has said time and time again on his program. To paraphrase Dennis, everyone has an agenda, unfortunately, the truth isn't always a part of the agenda.

Some of you may recall a series of TV ads from a few years ago making the claim that 1 out of 10 Americans were starving. The first time I saw the ad, my male bovine fecal matter meter pegged in the red zone at total BS. As it turns out, my BS meter was correct. A reporter investigated the claims made by this organization. It turns out that this organization asked people taking their survey if they ever went to bed hungry. And guess what, 10% of the respondents answered in the affirmative. Do I have to point out that going to bed hungry on occasion is not the same as starving?

Obviously, truth wasn't part of the agenda here. Raising funds was the agenda, the truth be damned.

Another example I recall was a radio ad from the early 1990's claiming that over 500,000 children go missing each year in America. Again, my BS meter zipped to the red zone. And again, it turns out that my BS meter was correct. The truth is that there are over 500,000 missing persons REPORTS filed each year for missing children. The children were missing in the sense that mom and dad didn't know the whereabouts of their child for a short period of time. For the vast majority of these reports, the children don't stay missing. The actual number of children that stay missing is only a few thousand each year (and most of these are non-custodial parent kidnappings). Of course, when a child does meet some sort of foul play, it is terrible, but the actual numbers are a far cry from over half a million.

In this case, it was a business selling child safety guides to parents. Selling kits was the agenda, the truth be damned. To it's credit, the company did change its ads and clarified the 500,000 number in later ads.

Given these two examples, what are we to make of the claim that 2 out of 3 women are molested or raped before they are 18 years old? It seems likely to me that the definitions of molestation and rape being used by the researchers here are very broad. It could be that the researchers included consensual acts like necking at the movies as molestation. Perhaps boys bumping into a girl's breasts in a crowded school hallway is considered molestation for this report. As for rape, this report probably considered a girl's regret for having consensual sex as rape, as it is not uncommon for a woman to regret sexual activity afterwards when they don't have strong feelings for their sex partner. They regret having sex afterwards, and blame the man for this. Regret becomes rape.

So the 2 of 3 number may be "true" by these (likely) broad definitions, but not true by a narrower definition of rape (forced, non-consensual sex) and molestation (non-consensual, inappropriate touching). I'll see if I can find out more, and update this post if I do.

The moral of the story? Everyone has an agenda, but the truth may not be part of the agenda, as Dennis says. And, sadly, sometimes that's the case even when it involves Christians and Christian radio stations.

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