Statistics and the news.

News coverage gets me irritated whenever statistics are mentioned.

This morning’s example (paraphrasing): “South African gays are upset about discrimination in blood donation; their donations are being refused, despite the fact that the majority of HIV cases in the country are in heterosexual women.”

I’m not wondering if there really is or isn’t a case of discrimination going on there; what irritated me is that there’s actually no valid statistical link between the two clauses of the sentence.

That’s one example; it’s on NPR, so I’d have thought they’d take a moment to get it right. Here’s another example from New Scientist magazine, who should know better (I’m paraphrasing again):

“A survey of accident victims indicates that more of them have cellphones than the general population, demonstrating that people who have cellphones are more likely to have accidents.”

No, no, no. It demonstrates that people who have accidents are more likely to have cellphones; maybe cellphones appeal to people who drive aggressively!

Notice that neither of my examples are cases where the statistic actually disproves the claim made in the accompanying article; only that they do not lend any valid credence to the claim.

What’s your favourite example of – not a maliciously misused statistic, so much – a statistic that, to the educated reader/listener/viewer, does nothing to prove the claim being made?

3 thoughts on “Statistics and the news.”

  1. “A study conducted by U.S. researchers Patrick K. McCluskey and Matthew Kulick found that nearly 90 percent of the citizens participating in their study were willing to sign a petition to support an outright ban on the use of Dihydrogen Monoxide in the United States.”


  2. Not quite what I was looking for – that’s a valid statistical datum that suggests most people can be easily spun.

    But today’s news popped up an interesting link: “Premature babies can ‘defy odds'”.

    “The study found no significant differences in educational achievement.”

    Uh… okay, so then there’s no odds for them to defy, are there? Maybe they are defying expectations, but that’s not the same thing. The odds indicate that there will be more disabilities in the group of premature children, but that this will have only limited effects on their prospects for later life.

    Having met more than a few disabled kids in my time, I’d say that we ought to be looking at why we shuffle people with disabilities into the back room of society, rather than treating them as valued members. It takes a little more effort to find appropriate work and social outlets, but it’s appalling to see how many people are consigned to a life of institutional boredom unrelated to their level of ability.

  3. Glamour magaizne posted a stat…I’m paraphrasing…

    ‘According researchers at Northwestern University rape is down by 80% and is going down because of the increase in internet pornography.’

    What’s worse is if you read the study, Ahhhhhh! The ‘researcher’ looked at the rape rates in the four states with lowest internet access and the rates in the four states with the highest internet access, and ran a correlation… Therefore, if you have the internet you must be looking at porn. And that is not the only problem with the data. (The author doesn’t even mention the problems that rise with rape stats.)

    Well, thats my…uh… favorite bad stat…

    Please don’t put me on any kind of list….

    Brooke Wagner

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