Following Up on "A Little Multiplication":

Last week I blogged, under the title "A Little Multiplication Could Have Gone a Long Way," about this claim in the Oregon State University newspaper (The Daily Barometer):

According to a press release issued by the Women’s Center, 2,000 rapes occur every five minutes.

I pointed out two things:

  1. The assertion should have led the author and the editor to be skeptical, since it would mean 2000 x (60/5) x 24 x 365 = 200 million rapes a year (presumably in the U.S.), a truly vast number. And in fact, the press release on which they were relying didn't say that; rather, it said, "About 2,000 rapes are committed daily at the rate of about one every 5 minutes."

  2. Moreover, the press release itself was patently mistaken, in a way that the reader of the press release probably should have caught with a bit of quick multiplication — a "rate of about one every 5 minutes" would be about 300 daily ((60/5) x 24), not about 2000 daily.

I posted my observation about both errors (in a little more detail than this recap) on the blog. I had also e-mailed this observation, again about both errors, to the Barometer and to the Women's Center.

The Barometer then published this correction:

Approximately, 2,000 rapes occur each day, or one about every five minutes. The Daily Barometer misprinted this fact in an article that appeared in the Jan. 19, 2006 edition of The Daily Barometer.

The Daily Barometer staff regrets any misunderstanding or inconveniences caused by this error.

Unfortunately, this corrects the first error, but not the second error. It is not a "fact," and can never be a fact, that "2,000 each day" would equal "one about every five minutes." Whoops. (The Women's Center doesn't seem to have corrected this assertion on its own Myths & Facts page.)

I don't mean to blow this out of proportion (speaking of multiplication). I suspect this newspaper is no better or worse than most student newspapers, or than many nonstudent newspapers. But I thought this was worth noting because I think it's emblematic of some of the weaknesses that newspapers often suffer from, especially a tendency to quote seemingly authoritative sources without skeptically examining them, and a lack of comfort with numbers that keeps many journalists from quickly spotting these sorts of errors.

I should also stress that I myself often make errors (though I hope not ones quite like this). But when I do, and when I don't correct them (or correct them incorrectly), others are quite right to point this out. The result of such corrections, I would hope, is more accuracy in the present, and more care in the future.