Here are some articles to remember when reading the mainstream media’s frequent self-congratulations, their mourning as they lose influence, and disparagement of new media reporting.
- “The Vitality of Mythical Numbers“, Max Singer, Public Interest, Spring, 1971
- “The (Continued) Vitality of Mythical Numbers“, Peter Reuter,Public Interest, Spring 1984
- “The (Ongoing) Vitality of Mythical Numbers – Does ID theft really cost $48 billion a year?“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 26 June 2006
- “More Mythical Numbers – The GAO debunks the official human-trafficking estimates“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 16 August 2006
- Other articles about these things
- For more information and Afterword
While mythical numbers will always circulate at warp speed, on the Internet the corrections often circulate almost as fast — unlike the mainstream media who often ignore their errors (unless forced to acknowledge them by the growing new media).
(1) “The Vitality of Mythical Numbers“, Max Singer, Public Interest, Spring, 1971 — Excerpt:
Along the same lines, this exercise is another reminder that even responsible officials, responsible newspapers, and responsible research groups pick up and pass on as gospel numbers that have no real basis in fact. We are reminded by this experience that because an estimate has been used widely by a variety of people who should know what they are talking about, one cannot assume that the estimate is even approximately correct.
… The main point of this article may well be to illustrate how far one can go in bounding a problem by taking numbers seriously, seeing what they imply, checking various implications against each other and against general knowledge (such as the number of persons or households in the city). Small efforts in this direction can go a long way to help ordinary people and responsible officials to cope with experts of various kinds.
(2) “The (Continued) Vitality of Mythical Numbers“, Peter Reuter,Public Interest, Spring 1984 — Excerpt:
No doubt there have always been mythical numbers in the world, numbers that satisfy some deep-seated urge to be able to fix the size of the “enemy,” internal or external. Greek citizens may really have believed that Xerxes had an army of one million when he invaded their country, even if modern scholarship has shown that this would have been far beyond his logistical capacity. But it is surely not too much to ask that the myth-making be kept an activity of the informal sector and that the government stick to providing estimates only when it has some reasonable basis and need for doing so.
Why are numbers like estimates of the heroin addict population allowed to circulate without criticism? I think at least 3 factors help explain this phenomenon.
First, there is no constituency for keeping the numbers accurate, while there is a large constituency for keeping them high. The broad consensus that the drug traffic is evil simply exacerbates the problem, even when people disagree on the best approach for overcoming that evil. …
The second factor explaining the wide circulation of these estimates is the lack of any systematic scholarly interest in the whole issue. …
The third factor is the most fundamental. The numbers have almost no policy consequence. It is certainly hard to identify any policy measure that rests on the estimate that the marijuana market generates $20 billion rather than $7 billion. The size of the government’s expenditures on drug treatment or law enforcement is certainly not driven by such numbers. Nowhere is there evidence that calculations are made of the marginal return from investing additional government resources on drug problems, in terms of the effect of expenditures on the scale of drug market incomes.
… This may be taken as further evidence for the proposition that the quality of official data is largely a function of its importance to those who use it. The actual size of the heroin addict population and of drug market incomes is simply not important either to the agencies that prepare the estimates or to any other organized group. Numbers without purpose are numbers without quality.
(3) “The (Ongoing) Vitality of Mythical Numbers – Does ID theft really cost $48 billion a year?“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 26 June 2006 — Excerpt:
Reporters have so much faith in the pure power of numbers that many will inject into a piece any ones available as long as they 1) are big; 2) come from a seemingly authoritative source; and 3) don’t contradict the point the reporter is trying to make.
The magic number for journalists covering the identity theft beat has been $48 billion—the estimated annual losses suffered by identity theft victims—which carries the Federal Trade Commission’s imprimatur. Since its arrival in 2003, the number has appeared in hundreds of news stories …
The FTC figure is based on telephone interviews with about 4,000 people in which subjects were asked about their ID theft losses in the last year, and these findings were extrapolated to the nation at large. Shouting “bunk” this week is Dean Foust, whose July 3 Business Week piece (“ID Theft: More Hype Than Harm”) argues that the figure is almost certainly wrong.
(4) “More Mythical Numbers – The GAO debunks the official human-trafficking estimates“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 16 August 2006 — Excerpt:
Reason magazine’s blog, Hit & Run, calls our attention today to a new Government Accountability Office study that casts doubt on official U.S. government estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year.
Scores of news organizations have accepted the 800,000 estimate as credible in their reporting of human trafficking in recent years. … But government estimates must always be approached with suspicion …
The “800,000 annual victims” estimate is a classic of the genre. The GAO report declares the government’s numbers all but worthless …
Although news organizations have feasted on the bogus estimates for years, few are helping themselves to the GAO findings. According to Nexis, both the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse moved stories about it on Aug. 14, but I can find no American newspaper that published them. Newsday also gave the study a fair hearing in an Aug. 15 story. The GAO debunking has been so underplayed that the 800,000 estimate may survive on its own inertia.
(5) Other articles about the topics discussed here
I recommend reading:
- Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, John Allen Paulos (1988)
- Consider a Spherical Cow: A Course in Environmental Problem Solving, John Hart (1988)
- News and Culture of Lying, Paul H. Weaver (1994)
(6a) For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the following:
- About America – how can we reform it?— See section 7, about America’s broken OODA loop
Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.
Click here to see all articles in the “Information and Disinformation” category.
Some posts about the media:
About the mainstream media
- A time-saving tip when reading the daily news, 2 Januaary 2008
- The media discover info ops, with outrage!, 22 April 2008
- Only our amnesia makes reading the newspapers bearable, 30 April 2008
- The myth of media pessimism about the economy, 13 June 2008
- “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
- “The Death of Deep Throat and the Crisis of Journalism”, 23 December 2008
- The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 18 February 2009 — About sea ice
- The media rolls over and plays dead for Obama, as it does for all new Presidents, 19 February 2009
- The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
- The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
- We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
- Are we blind, or just incurious about important news?, 6 July 2009
- We know nothing because we read newspapers, 12 October 2009 — About mythical numbers
- Must the old media die for the new media to flourish?, 29 October 2009
- Clay Shirky is brilliant and American – hence often delusionally flattering, 24 November 2009
- Journalists, relying on anonymous government sources, attack anonymous bloggers who correct journalists’ errors, 25 July 2010
- Exaggerations and false predictions are good; truth is bad, 10 August 2010 — About peak oil research