The Pointlessness of Alarming Statistics

Am I the only one who hates those "every 10 seconds" statistics?

Take this one: according to several websites, child abuse is reported every 10 seconds, resulting in approximately 3 million reports of child abuse a year.

That sounds terrible--and I certainly won't dispute that child abuse is an awful thing.

Here are the problems:

(1) "Every 10 seconds" creates an unbalanced impression about people and society.

According to, there are approximately 56 to 73 million children in the United States (the latter number includes adolescents). Assuming every single report of child abuse addresses a single, separate child (which is doubtful), then 4% to 6% of children in the United States are reportedly abused in a single year (this number does not include verified abuse).

Any amount is troubling, of course. But the hyperbolic, hysterical "every 10 seconds" doesn't invite rational consideration. Instead, it sounds, well, hyperbolic and hysterical--and therefore, far more likely to be ignored, even when accepted by believers, simply because the idea is unfathomable and outrageous. 

Here's another one: every 11 seconds, a healthy pet is put down, a total of 2.7 million a year. I agree that 2.7 million unnecessary deaths is disgusting; many times, the healthy pet is the victim of ignorance, indifference, and vanity (stupid people who wanted a "cute liddle dog," then got tired of its barking ways and dropped it off at a kill-shelter).

And yet--according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are 144 million cats and dogs as pets in the United States. 2.7 equals 2% of overall ownership (less, in fact, since 2.7 refers to ALL pets, not just cats and dogs).

People who throw away their pets still make me mad but my main reaction to that statistic was WOW! It appears that most Americans are surprisingly responsible pet owners, just as they also appear to be reasonably dutiful parents.

(2) "Every 10 seconds" is false. 

Well-meaning doomsdayers reason from the base statistic (2.7 million healthy animals killed per year) to create the "every 10 seconds" argument.

But "every 10 seconds" is literally impossible.

State and city offices aren't open at night. And most shelters are open even less. Excluding Alaska and Hawaii and assuming that most government offices close at 5 p.m. and open at 8 a.m, then "nothing" at all is happening between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. EST. (If one takes Hawaii and Alaska into consideration, this means that "nothing" is happening between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. EST.)

This may seem like quibbling. After all, abuse doesn't wait until the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to occur. But that's the point. The child abuse statistic is often presented as if the reports were the same as the actual abuse--this is disingenuous, which is a nicer way of saying that it's a lie. Abuse can take place between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., but in order to understand the statistic, the report and the event being reported should not be conflated. Since humans aren't robots, producing a designated behavior every 10 minutes, sliding abuse into that mental framework reduces it to a mechanical response.

The straight statistic--3.3 million reports/2.7 million deaths--is a non-emotional fact. Wording that statistic as a report or death every 10 minutes is deliberately provocative, loaded even, yet ultimately less truthful than the straight fact. Since day-to-day life does not, in fact, work like a Road Runner Acme device ("It's time for another alarming event!"), the claim eventually becomes meaningless.

3) A number with "every 10 seconds" attached isn't useful. 

It is far more useful to find out, say, how many children live in Maine (approximately 210 thousand)--and worry about what's happening to them. Abandoning "alarming" national statistics for local knowledge (Are reports more likely to come from neighbors? family members? the child? teachers? Are reports more prevalent in certain seasons? Areas? What types of abuse are reported? Are such reports dependable? Why or why not? What is the best reporting method? What can be done to help?) will also go much further in helping people actually combat the problem.

Hysteria might make people feel relevant and in-tune with social problems--it doesn't actually accomplish anything and its attendant sense of horror ("Oh my goodness; that's so awful!) often prevents people from going any further since the horror is deemed to be enough ("I felt bad today--good for me").

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Reading your last blog post reminded me a quote I have on our refrigerator:

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populous alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety), by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." H. L. Mencken, 1916