Centuries from now, when historians attempt to label the age in which we live, there will be no shortage of appellations from which to choose: The Information Age; The Age of Millennial Entitlement; The Genderless Generation.
But if you don’t mind, allow me to do their work for them. For we live, above all else, in the Age of the Meaningless Statistic.
While context has long been the bane of American political debate, unapologetic liberal groupthink and a clickbait-based media model are enabling the propagation of statistics that sound shocking, yet in reality mean very little—numerical plagues that spread rapidly and leave far too much damage in their wakes.
Consider, for instance, a recent statistic on the drug testing of welfare recipients that dominated this writer’s Facebook feed for the better part of a week. I first encountered it in New York magazine, apparently via the Charlotte Observer:
Of 7,600 applicants to the state’s Work First program — a program that provides families with cash benefits, job training, and support services — 89 (or about 2 percent) were referred for drug testing. Of those, 21 (or less than 0.3 percent of those screened) tested positive — a percentage vastly below both the state and national average rates of self-reported drug use.
Either someone is really bad at math, or they are going out of their way to purposely confuse the reader. Since when is 21 of 89 less than a third of a percent? The 0.3 percent figure was almost certainly derived by using the 21 that tested positive against the 7,600 total who, according to the article at least, weren’t even tested.
But rudimentary math didn’t stop Vox.com and Aol.com from parroting the same silly statistic, making one wonder just how four respected media outlets failed to spot such obvious spin. Are they lazy or have they all simply abandoned any pretense of objectivity? While I’d like to believe it’s the former, the frequency of such incidents makes the latter much more likely.
Consider another fine example of statistical trickery from last year: a Time magazine article which declared: “Study Says White Extremists Have Killed More Americans in the U.S. Than Jihadists Since 9/11.”
Time cites as its source data from New America that shows the number of deaths at the hands of both crazy white people and crazy Muslims since September 11, 2001. Indeed, this laughably simple, four-column table does seem to confirm Time’s headline.
The journalistic crime here lies less in Time’s reporting than it does in the magazine’s critical, and almost certainly purposeful, lack of context. While New America’s numbers are likely somewhat accurate, there are approximately 100 times more white people in America than there are Muslims. Of course they have killed more people (though following the attacks in San Bernardino the Muslim column has come within three of its Caucasian counterpart).
It’s almost mathematically impossible for “white extremists” to not lead the nation in this notorious category, as white people are America’s largest demographic. The fact that Muslims are even in the neighborhood should be the real headline, at least in a world where journalistic ethics still exist and reporting is expected to reflect the real world to some degree.
This says nothing about Muslims in general, of course, but rather the reluctance of the media to report on reality. Of course most Muslims are good people, as are most Caucasians; so shouldn’t Time’sreporting put them on equal ground?
Or the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post,, or any of the poorly camouflaged left-wing mouthpieces that likewise reported the same misleading statistic? You know, America’s journalistic powerhouses that extol the virtues of objectivity with the same moral elasticity of a used car salesman pushing that clear coat. The same ones comprised of the Ivy League’s finest press prospects that somehow escaped college without a remedial understanding of statistics.
The same ones who insist that campus sexual assaults are suddenly an epidemic, reflected in the claims of outlets such as Newsweek, the , and the Washington Post that between 20 and 25 percent of college females are victims. The same claims widely debunked by media outlets such as the Washington Examiner and Reason that have actually taken the time to investigate the science behind these obviously absurd statistics.
If you’ll recall, it was in the midst of this “rape epidemic” narrative that Rolling Stone published its now infamous investigation into an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, a story that was later retracted. In the end, a fraternity’s reputation was irreparably damaged, the University likely spent millions in its legal defense, and a once iconic American publication was ridiculed to no end for its obvious agenda.
But Rolling Stone was the exception. The vast majority of major media outlets escape unharmed.
How else does one explain the propagation of perhaps the most meaningless statistic of all: the idea that 97 percent of scientists agree that humans are the root cause of climate change? Since when do 97 percent of scientists agree on anything? Even the well-regarded Scientific American, a staunch proponent of manmade global warming, gives serious credence to the idea that calculating the consensus may be all but impossible:
… So far, no one has quantified the consensus among natural scientists on global warming. In fact, it cannot be done easily, said Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford University who has been studying communication strategies for decades.
While the Cook study may quantify the views expressed in published literature, it does not establish the beliefs of any defined group of scientists, Krosnick said.
“How do you determine who qualifies to be surveyed and who doesn’t qualify?” he asked. “Personally, I haven’t seen anyone accomplish that yet.”
Other outlets have revealed the “science” behind the number, and it’s anything but scientific.
While our clickbait-based media model aids and abets this shallow, half-hearted journalism, it does nothing to nullify the media’s moral duty to put critical information in the proper context.
These statistical transgressions are more than simple social media debate fodder; they have enormous implications in the political arena. And if the media are to continue to be our watchdog, they have a duty to put politics aside and put numbers in perspective.
But given their track record, I’d say there’s a 1 in 10 chance of that ever happening. Let’s see if that number goes viral; I don’t have any evidence to support it, but no one seems to care about that anymore.
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