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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.

Defending the Indefensible:
We apologise again for the fault in the maths. Those
responsible for sacking the people who have just been sacked
have been sacked.
2.4.2006 2:55am
KMAJ (mail):
I know this is off subject, but thought it should be brought to your attention.

Congrats to all the Volokh Conspiracy professors:

Blawg Review Awards 2005

- The Volokh Conspiracy takes Best Group Blog by Law Professors

- Professor Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy shares the Blawg Review Award for Legal Reasoning with John Hinderaker of Power Line

I know the second one might anger some.
2.4.2006 5:23am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Couldn't the 2000 every five minutes be worldwide? I mean in context that might be a bit misleading but advocacy groups (of all shapes and sizes) have a tendency to quote the most impressive number possible even if it isn't always appropriate.
2.4.2006 5:44am
PersonFromPorlock:
The function of journalism is to provide entertaining filler to go between the ads. Fact-checking adds nothing to a story's entertainment value, increases its cost and could make it unusable, so it isn't done.
2.4.2006 7:35am
Eric Muller (www):
"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."

WMD, anyone?
2.4.2006 8:12am
A. Zarkov (mail):
Not only does the Oregon Women's Center have trouble doing grade-school level arithmetic, I suspect they (or whoever reported their statistics) don't know how to do a survey either. I have run across this kind of thing before where the surveyors send out a questionnaire and get back about 5%. Then they assume the 95% that did not respond are just like those who did. In other words, they don't correct for response bias. They don't do follow-ups or make any attempt at imputation. Does any sensible person really believe that "One out of every four women on college campuses has experienced sexual violence, ..." (Note the change in terminology from "rape" to "sexual violence." ) Moreover we don't know how "rape" was defined in the questionnaire (if it was) or how the question was worded.
2.4.2006 9:47am
abb3w:
What? You mean not everyone memorizes useless conversions like that there are 1440 minutes (or 86400 seconds) per day? What is this country coming to?
2.4.2006 10:52am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
The math aversion is even stranger since 'everyone' has a spreadsheet on their computer that allows instant checking of much more complicated math than this without any calculation.
2.4.2006 11:00am
Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick:
It doesn't matter whether the statistics inclue the entire world or merely the west side of Cleveland - there are still only 1440 minutes in a day. The obviously-misreported statistic is not "2000 every five minutes," but rather "2,000 rapes occur each day, or one about every five minutes."

To have 2000 abortions with one every five minutes would require almost 7 days; an abortion every five minutes would be 288 per day.
2.4.2006 11:09am
David Sucher (mail) (www):
While advocacy may have something to do with the issue, the inability to "do the math" cuts across occupational and political lines. It's a form of critical thinking which even very critical thinkers fail to do. You see it all the time in news reports by professional journalists who are professional skeptics. They include numbers in their reports but never do the arithmetic which would provide a fuller sense of their meaning (and plausibility) such as $ per square-foot or $ per citizen.
2.4.2006 11:40am
Kent Scheidegger (mail) (www):
Advocacy and failure to check facts are related. It is a natural human tendency to accept without question assertions that confirm our view of the world and be more skeptical of those that challenge that view. Professionalism in journalism should involve recognizing that tendency in oneself and consciously fighting it, so as to be skeptical regardless.
2.4.2006 11:59am
Smithy (mail) (www):
Typical leftist exaggeration from the unhinged feminist left. You can chalk it up to enumeracy -- I chalk it up to plain craziness.
2.4.2006 1:56pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Smithy: It's not exaggeration; it's mathematical error. It's not "enumeracy"; it's "innumeracy." I know of no "craziness" that manifests itself as the inability or unwillingness to do arithmetic. There's little reason to think that the authors of the underlying web page or of the newspaper article are "unhinged." There's nothing inherently leftist in high estimates of the level of rape; conservatives should be and are concerned about rape, too. As my original post suggested, there's a debate among serious scholars about the true incidence of rape; the 2000 per day figure is not outlandish, though it is on the high end of the estimates.
2.4.2006 3:03pm
just me (mail):
"A man in America is hit by a car every ten minutes."

"Poor guy."
2.4.2006 3:35pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
I'm the President of the MIT Pistol &Rifle Club in Cambridge, MA. I'm also involved in politics here im MA (running for State Senate). I can assure you that in the world of gun politics (or should that be gun-control politics?) these sort of exaggerations are rampant.

I don't think that they are mistakes in most cases. Somewhere, someone took some liberties with the numbers to "enhance" their case for more restrictive gun laws, and everyone else from your next door neighbor to the New York Times and the Associated Press is now spouting the same phony numbers.

A few people at the NRA, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and Gun Owners Action League (here in MA) catch the "error" and issue a press release correcting it, but that has almost no effect. Fortunately, the number of people who actually vote these laws into place is limited, and it's sometimes possible to persuade individual legislators of the truth where persuading the mass of the people is almost impossible.

Is there some (honest) way to make money off of this sort of thing? Considering the success that the exaggerators seem to have with guns and women's issues and so forth, it ought to be a gold mine in some way or other.....
2.4.2006 6:40pm
mike (mail):
Yes, Brooks Lyman there used to be a way to make money at this ..... Enron .... Worldcom .... Tyco. The only place left is the government.

I'm a shooter too. I'm working on concealed carry reform in Georgia. I hear all the wild numbers too.

DrPhil - "There are five children a day killed with guns through either accidents or suicides. Five children a day in America are killed with guns. "

Brady Campaign - "In 2000, 1,776 children and teenagers were murdered with guns, 1,007 committed suicide with guns, and 193 died in unintentional shootings. A total of 3,042 young people were killed by firearms in the U.S., one every three hours"

Of course the numbers from the Center for Disease Control, which tracks all causes of death, reports only 86 accidental deaths in kids aged 14-years-and-under in the year 2000, and 110 suicides, for a total of 198. The total of kids aged 14-and-under killed by firearms in 2000, according to the CDC, was 435
2.4.2006 8:48pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Insert joke here about women being bad at math? No, that would be unfair.

You mean not everyone memorizes useless conversions like that there are 1440 minutes (or 86400 seconds) per day?

Volokh hasn't chastised anyone for a failure to do math on the fly. If you're going to include a statistic as part of a newspaper story, a report, a brief, a speech, etc., you should check the numbers beforehand. It's a normal part of fact-checking in general.

It's not like they didn't have time. And they still failed to check the numbers when issuing a correction. That's part of a reporter's job and they failed to do it, twice. They owe their readers another correction--which they will not issue, because newspaper people are in general arrogant jerks who have no compunctions whatsoever about slandering innocent people, let alone failing to correct math errors.

Even when you bring to their attention proof that their story is incorrect or unsupported, they choose not to run corrections if the "victim" of their error is politically incorrect. They will even tell you then plan to issue a correction, and then... not do it.
2.4.2006 9:42pm
NickM (mail) (www):
I wonder if their circulation figures are off by a factor of 7 too.

Nick
2.5.2006 10:17pm
letmespellitoutforyou (mail):
Did you know that 85 percent of al statistics are made up?
2.6.2006 9:51am
Bob Loblaw (www):

because newspaper people are in general arrogant jerks who have no compunctions whatsoever about slandering innocent people
Did anyone else find this statement humorous?
2.6.2006 3:42pm