Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Beware those phantom statistics

It's okay: He's not at church.
I have often been a victim of confirmation bias, which is when I find an article that supports what I already believe. Lucky for you, I have an odd assortment of friends who delight in calling me on it when I post things on the innerwebs that aren't quite right.

Phantom statistics are everywhere, floating around in our minds like plastic in the ocean.

Speaking of which, you probably heard recently that the panic over drinking straws was based on a nonscientific phone survey conducted by a 9-year-old boy. This just in: Washington, D.C., will begin enforcing its ban on plastic straws on Jan. 1, which would penalize churches for offering free coffee if it comes with a stirrer.

I'm not sure our Maker wants politicians fooling around with church coffee hour. Some things are sacred.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, editor in chief of Reason, has compiled other examples.
At a time when #MeToo and Title IX are dominating the headlines, for instance, it can seem like sexual assault is everywhere. But one of the central statistics responsible for that perception rests on an astonishingly weak foundation. You've probably heard this shocking figure: One in five women has been sexually assaulted while in college.
That figure was based on survey data cobbled together from his students' dissertations and masters' theses. The central data set drew from interviews with just 76 nontraditional, nonresidential students whose offenses "may or may not have happened on or near a college campus, may or may not have been perpetrated on other students, and may have happened at any time in the survey respondents' adult lives." Despite all these problems, the figure is still widely used and widely believed.
How come it is?
Local governments eager for federal grant dollars will do everything in their power to keep the scary numbers about rampant human trafficking alive and active. Environmental activists choose not to look too closely at statistics about plastic use and waste before demanding that you stop drinking your soda with a straw. And advocates for victims of sexual violence are too quick to lean on flawed data that point to a widespread problem when they lobby for more resources.
Follow the money.

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