Overview of Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists

DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists
Joel Finest
College of California Press
Berkeley and Los Angeles, California
2001, 2012
Print Size: 213 pages

My Score: 4/5


Damned Lies and Statistics is a wonderful ebook on the misuse of statistics by Joel Finest, a Professor of Sociology and Prison Justice on the College of Delaware. Lies was first printed in 2001 and up to date in 2012. There’s additionally a sequel Extra Damned Lies and Statistics: How Numbers Confuse Public Points.

Lies offers many examples of unhealthy statistics about social issues and public coverage from the 1980’s and 1990’s. It additionally discusses many widespread patterns in how the unhealthy statistics have been produced and sometimes broadly disseminated by the mass media and “specialists.” In lots of respects, it offers a partial guidelines of widespread flaws and outright deception in statistics about social issues. Most of those are equally relevant to statistics in medication and public well being, finance, and plenty of different fields.

This isn’t a deep statistics ebook. It offers largely with averages, charges, medians and different generally quoted statistics. It touches on extra superior matters such because the “odds ratio” solely in giving examples the place esoteric phrases from superior statistics are innocently misinterpreted by the mass media — or maybe utilized in a intentionally deceptive approach by officers or “specialists.” Quite it focuses on widespread misuses of statistics in politics and the mass media within the custom of Darrell Huff’s basic The best way to Lie with Statistics, an essential and contentious space usually prevented by skilled statisticians.

The Million Lacking Kids

I first encountered Professor Finest researching the various overlapping claims and counter-claims about lacking kids, serial killers, and such outre matters as Satanic Ritual Abuse within the 1980’s. Finest can be the writer of Threatened Kids: Rhetoric and Concern about Youngster-Victims (College of Chicago Press, 1990) and a lot of different books and articles about this subject.

Particularly one of many extra outstanding claims from this era, nonetheless alive in the present day on the Web, was the declare that a million kids went lacking every year in america, usually implied to be horrific stranger abductions and murders by serial killers and even Satanic cultists. Needless to say within the early to mid-1980’s when these claims reached their peak, the whole variety of kids in america (aged 0-17 years) was about sixty-two million. This might indicate that almost all neighborhoods and most colleges in america would have been experiencing no less than one horrific abduction and homicide of a kid yearly.

After all, the million lacking kids quantity was extremely deceptive. Activists had rounded up from a nationwide variety of about eight-hundred thousand (800,000) “lacking kids” reported to the FBI, that consisted primarily of short-term disappearances, dominated by teenage ladies spending time with their boyfriends with out parental permission. They usually quoted the quantity in methods and in contexts that implied that it referred to the kidnapping and homicide of youngsters by strangers. The Denver Put up gained a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1985 dissecting and debunking these numbers.

In Lies Finest discusses many examples of unhealthy statistics from this era, together with the extra sober, extra particular declare of fifty,000 kids kidnapped and killed by strangers, orders of magnitude bigger than the roughly seventy-eight claimed by the FBI on the time. By the way, the whole variety of all homicides within the United states of america in 1984 was 18,690 based on official statistics. Some fashionable numbers might be discovered on the Nationwide Heart for Lacking and Exploited Kids. In 1999,

An estimated 115 kids have been the victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping. These “stereotypical” kidnappings concerned somebody the kid didn’t know or was an acquaintance. The kid was held in a single day, transported 50 miles or extra, killed, ransomed or held with the intent to maintain the kid completely.

Within the ebook, Finest exhibits a sample wherein activists produce an enormous quantity for the dimensions of a social drawback that’s usually a spherical a number of of one-million, typically an informed guess within the absence of stable knowledge, and the quantity is then taken up and repeatedly endlessly by the mass media, politicians, and others. A million lacking kids. Three million homeless individuals. Three million jobs accessible in America that aren’t stuffed as a result of too a lot of our individuals don’t have the talents for these jobs.

The alarming large quantity, regularly primarily based on a broad definition and even sheer guesswork, is commonly mixed with a selected, horrific, and extremely uncommon instance or examples of the social drawback, such because the grotesque homicide of six 12 months previous Adam Walsh in 1981.

In various instances, the large quantity mutates additional into an much more alarming quantity. In a single case, 150,000 younger ladies affected by anorexia nervosa, an consuming dysfunction wherein the lady might starve herself to dying, in america turned into 150,000 younger ladies dying every year from anorexia nervosa.

Certainly, Web wags have coined the time period citogenesis for the method by which even a flat out error might by frequent repetition flip right into a “reality” that “everybody is aware of.”


Within the ebook, Finest attributes a few of these unhealthy statistics to innumeracy, the poor math and statistics abilities of activists, reporters, and most people, though he finally concludes that innumeracy can’t actually clarify the persistence of unhealthy statistics and their uncritical acceptance by reporters and the general public who ought to know higher.

I are likely to agree with this evaluation. Lots of the patterns described within the ebook are additionally discovered within the ubiquitous STEM (Science, Expertise, Engineering and Math) scarcity claims that I’ve studied and written about earlier than. The patterns are additionally similar to the various questionable claims discovered within the software program design and engineering literature. In each instances, the claims are each produced by and believed by individuals with robust, even distinctive mathematical abilities. Innumeracy is not any rationalization.

Nonetheless, I feel there are a few classes concerning the limitations of mathematical considering even by individuals with robust math abilities, 800 math SAT scores and so on.. First, we largely cope with small numbers every single day and in most faculty math issues. Most purchases are lower than a thousand {dollars}. Most individuals spend extra only some instances of their lives: tens of 1000’s of {dollars} for a automobile or school tuition, a whole lot of 1000’s of {dollars} for a house. We personal at most just a few thousand gadgets and often cope with a lot smaller numbers of things in every single day actions. We aren’t used to very large numbers like one-million or one-billion or one-trillion. We don’t all the time discover mathematical errors or sloppy considering that might be apparent with small numbers.

Additional, many of those large numbers require further numbers to interpret correctly such because the inhabitants of the nation (about 324 million in 2015), the Gross Home Product ($17,701.3 billion), the whole measurement of the US federal funds (about $3.5 trillion), the whole variety of deaths per 12 months ( 2,596,993 ) that we might not know or take into consideration usually. These further numbers might themselves have issues of their definition and measurement not shared with the small numbers that we encounter in every day life.

Second, robust mathematical abilities don’t defend us from widespread cognitive flaws like affirmation bias and wishful considering. Lies is extra a ebook about these weaknesses in human considering in a mathematical context.

Some Weaknesses

In the beginning of the ebook, Finest mentions that each liberals and conservatives are responsible of manufacturing and utilizing unhealthy statistics. He offers examples of each within the ebook. He makes the purpose that he offers examples of unhealthy statistics utilized in assist of causes that he agrees with in addition to causes he opposes. However he does little to inform the reader the place he stands or even when he has a stand on most of the points in his examples. I no less than wish to know his private opinion, the place he stands, if he has an opinion, partly to judge any doable bias on his half.

One instance within the ebook struck me as contrived specifically. Finest discusses some research of relative crime and poverty charges amongst blacks and whites in america. These present, for instance, that blacks are each extra more likely to commit and to be victimized by crime than whites in america.

Black vs White Crime Rates from Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best

Black vs White Crime Charges from Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Finest

He then argues that race might be thought of as a proxy for “class,” in my thoughts a fair fuzzier class than “race.” He then exhibits hypothetical knowledge evaluating crime charges between blacks and whites in america, sorted and grouped by social class which he doesn’t outline clearly. Notice that Finest makes use of social class fairly than earnings degree, one thing that may very well be decided from official data and statistics corresponding to earnings tax returns or payroll data.

Desk 5. Hypothetical Knowledge Displaying How Obvious Racial Variations in Arrests May Actually Mirror Class Variations

Hypothetical Data

Hypothetical Knowledge

Finest, Joel (2012-08-07). Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists (p. 119). College of California Press. Kindle Version.

This hypothetical knowledge exhibits related crime charges — each charges of committing crimes and being victimized — for blacks and whites in the identical social class. Blacks have total larger crime and victimization charges as a result of a better proportion of blacks are decrease class than whites.

Finest appears to be arguing that this hypothetical knowledge guidelines out race because the figuring out variable in crime charges and presumably poverty. The true problem is “class.” This swap from precise to hypothetical knowledge in the course of the dialogue can be the form of sleight of hand that one encounters in deliberately or by chance deceptive discussions of social issues and public coverage.

Nevertheless, even when the precise knowledge is just like the hypothetical knowledge, if race causes “class,” this isn’t the case. Blacks may are usually decrease class due to discrimination (the liberal rationalization) or unhealthy genes (the old-fashioned conservative rationalization). This peculiar passage within the ebook is an instance the place a transparent assertion of the writer’s private beliefs and opinions could be useful, fairly than sustaining the pretense of absolute tutorial objectivity.

Though the ebook offers a superb, though incomplete guidelines of inquiries to ask about any statistic corresponding to the place did it come from, is it a guess, how is it outlined, how is it measured, and the way was the pattern used to compute the statistic chosen, it doesn’t present a lot steering in the right way to analysis the solutions to those questions, particularly within the restricted time and with the restricted sources accessible to most of us. Within the current day, many readers are more likely to do a Google search and switch up a Wikipedia web page. On controversial matters, Wikipedia pages usually look like taken over by one facet or one other of the controversy, maybe the facet with probably the most sources or probably the most cussed, fanatical adherents.

Different hits are articles from the mass media, e.g. CNN or the New York Instances, which regularly exhibit the faults that Finest critiques in his ebook. Some fringe websites corresponding to Alex Jones or David Icke might sometimes present up, however these are tough to judge and sometimes kooky, even when they sometimes make legitimate factors. Many different hits look like Google advertisers attempting to promote one thing vaguely associated to the search time period or phrase.


Lies is a wonderful ebook about unhealthy statistics within the mass media and politics. The truth is, most of the points mentioned within the ebook have broader applicability to medication and public well being, finance, and plenty of different areas. It’s not a rehash of Darrell Huff’s The best way to Lie with Statistics, and covers many further matters.

The ebook offers some good steering on the right way to apply crucial considering to statistics on social issues within the mass media and politics, in addition to different arenas. As I illustrate within the case of some black versus white statistics within the ebook, readers ought to apply crucial considering to the ebook itself as properly.

Most readers will most likely profit from referring to the ebook and its incomplete guidelines of widespread flaws in statistics every time they encounter a scary or outrage-provoking quantity corresponding to “a million lacking kids.”

© 2015 John F. McGowan

Concerning the Creator

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves issues utilizing arithmetic and mathematical software program, together with creating gesture recognition for contact units, video compression and speech recognition applied sciences. He has in depth expertise creating software program in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visible Fundamental and plenty of different programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs creating laptop imaginative and prescient algorithms and software program for cellular units. He has labored as a contractor at NASA Ames Analysis Heart concerned within the analysis and growth of picture and video processing algorithms and expertise. He has printed articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the invention of methane on Mars), and low-cost entry to area. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Expertise (Caltech). He might be reached at [email protected].