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One In Five Statistics Is Crap
In my Tuesday night French class, somebody mentioned that they'd heard a stat on (gak!) Dr. Phil that one in five children has been propositioned by pervs on the Internet. I don't know if "propositioned" was exactly how it was put on Dr. Phil, since it was just en Français hearsay, but I do know that one in five seems awfully suspect. One in five? One in five? Well, it turns out The Wall Street Journal's new "Numbers Guy," Carl Bialik, felt as I did, and did a little investigation, to boot:

It's an alarming statistic: One in five children has been sexually solicited online.

That stat is turning up on billboards and television commercials around the country, driven by an aggressive push from child-protection advocates. In the TV version, eerie music plays as a camera pans over a school playground and then shows a park. A female narrator intones: "To the list of places you might find sexual predators, add this one" -- as the image changes to a girl using a computer in her bedroom. The spot ends with the one-in-five stat. It's all part of an ad blitz that has gotten millions of dollars of free media time since its launch last year and is set to continue through 2007.

But while the motivation behind the campaign appears to be sound, the crucial statistic is misleading and could scare parents into thinking the danger is greater than it really is.

Here's a more accurate use of the statistic that we'll likely never see in an ad: Five years ago, one in five children -- ranging from fifth graders to high school seniors -- who used the Internet at least once a month said in a telephone survey that they'd received an online sexual solicitation, according to research paid for by advocates of the issue. Solicitations were broadly defined to include "unwanted" sexual talk, whether from someone they knew or a stranger, or any sexual talk with someone over 18. Only 24% of the solicitations came from people who identified themselves as adults; the bulk of the remainder came from other minors (or those purporting to be under 18).

Only 3% of the children surveyed said they received an "aggressive solicitation," which includes measures like requests for an offline meeting or telephone calls. None of the solicitations led to actual sexual contact or assault. And most children successfully cut off the undesired communication themselves. (The study focused largely on "live" chats like instant-messenger exchanges; e-mail spam wasn't counted.)

...There's no question that online sex crimes are a serious problem. According to a separate University of New Hampshire study partially funded by NCMEC, law-enforcement officials made about 2,600 arrests for Internet sex crimes against minors over 12 months in 2000 and 2001. That number surely is lower than the actual number of Internet sex crimes, because many don't lead to arrests and some may not have been classified as arising from online interaction. Still, that's a long way from one of every five children.

Numbers Guy reader Kraig Eno spotted billboards carrying the stat in the Seattle area and researched its source. When he discovered it was based on a five-year-old study and hardly covered all children, he concluded in an e-mail, "The billboard's statement is so misleading as to be almost completely false, however important its warning is. ... But so what if the billboard's statement isn't true? It's propaganda, but it's the RIGHT KIND of propaganda. Nine out of 10 ad executives would surely agree!"

The stat also got attention from University of Delaware professor Joel Best, who in his book last year, "More Damned Lies and Statistics," mentioned it alongside some other published stats about children, like how many are involved in bullying and the percentage of girls abused on dates, in which researchers made methodological choices that tended to lead to bigger numbers.

Dr. Best points out that everyone involved -- advocates, researchers, journal editors and newspaper reporters and editors -- benefits from bigger numbers. And it's not coincidental that he found several examples of questionable statistics involving children. "Expressing threats in terms of dangers to our children is very emotionally powerful in our society," he says.

Unfortunately, passing off lies as statistics is quite damaging, creating what Barry Glassner called "The Culture Of Fear," and causing funding and attention to go where it isn't needed -- and leaving holes where it is:

On campus, for example, the "date rape" movement and the "Take Back the Night" marches are giant mobilizations to help young women cope with the threat of rape. Katie Roiphe has pointed out that a young woman's chances of being raped at Princeton or Mount Holyoke or Smith or the University of Minnesota are miniscule. We have massive resources going to staff rape crisis centers for privileged young women on our campuses, but women who really need the services are women in the inner city, which suffers a much higher incidence of sexual assault.

Posted by aalkon at January 24, 2005 8:00 AM

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One in five children were propositioned by Dr. Phil. He ships them off to his psycho-Nazi tough love camp

Posted by: Richard Speck at January 24, 2005 2:58 PM

"We have massive resources going to staff rape crisis centers for privileged young women on our campuses"

Well, their parents are paying for the centers through skyhigh tuition/fees, so I wouldn't get all huffy about it. If that's how they want to spend their money, it's fine with me. It's not as though the privileged parents would consider support of inner-city rape crisis centers as the next best use of that money anyway.

Posted by: Lena wants desperately to be raped at January 24, 2005 4:40 PM

In the spirit of the post here is a little essay of mine.

Polls, Surveys, Research and Experts

When people, groups, governments etc. want to twist our
minds into the pretzels of their choosing, they can always
trot out methods that work remarkably well.

In this part of the country,(Southern California), we have
the supermarkets Ralph’s, Von’s and Albertson’s. When it
comes to their “surveys,” quite naturally, whichever market
takes the survey comes out with the scantiest prices. Of
course, I think we all know this, but the reason I broach
this subject is that this is essentially what happens with
ALL surveys. The government, religious groups, political
parties of all persuasions take surveys. But “surveys” are
really just part of their advertising budgets. The survey
will say whatever the group paying for it wants it to say.
No double blind studies, no empiricism, no laboratories
experimenting with rats. The commissioner of the survey
whips out the trusty old checkbook and the “survey” will be
jerry-rigged, gerrymandered and Jerry Lewised until it says
exactly what they want.

Research is the same. For instance, I wouldn’t flabbergast
me if the tobacco industry someday soon says that their
research proves that cigarette smoking actually causes your
breasts and penises to grow, (hopefully not in the same
people). Whoever is doing the “research” always has a vested
interest. Period.

Polls are actually fun. For instance, a politician is down
in the polls, it looks like he has no chance. They go to a
pollster who can make his vicissitudes instantly vanish.
They can do this by creating questions that are so vague and
unclear, that they can be interpreted any way they choose.
For instance, they could, on their survey ask the following,
“yeah, okay our guy is a gutless piece of sniveling crap,
but if he was running against Adolph Hitler, you’d vote for
him, wouldn’t you?” The headline next day, “97% REPORT A
FAVORABLE RESPONSE TO CANDIDATE X.” Even the polls you might
think are relatively free of bias, are frequently simply
wrong. So how can you trust them on anything?

Statistics? Same thing. All interest groups can and do take
figures and statistics and simply pull them out of the
greater context and use them to their own ends. How about
this, and it’s a true story. The government, the FBI, the
Media have been touting that crime is down something like
20%. This sounds perfectly peachy until you figure out what
the constants are. As an example, your sister has been
beaten by her husband about 10 times per year. This last
year, he only beat her 8 times. Gadzooks, her beatings are
down 20%!!! Oh happy day. Bottom line. Anybody with the
slightest amount of intelligence can take numbers,
statistics, percentages, throw them into a blender with a
couple of eggs and concoct anything they want to.

Experts, same thing. Remember the O.J. Simpson trial?
Experts were trotted in with diametrically opposing views
looking at the exact same evidence. Why? All people alive
are colored by their various backgrounds, prejudices,
slants. Then money comes in and colors life’s rich pageant
even more. Here in California, not one of the hundreds of
experts knew that the real estate market was going to crash
in 1989. Nobody. Experts smexperts.

There we have them. The tools of the SALESMAN. They’re
selling their plans, their agendas, their positions. The
polls, the surveys, the experts, the research, are all
simply tools of persuasion. No matter how they dress them up
in patten-leather shoes and tuxs, these are still just
devices they have fabricated to get you to do what they
want. Nothing more, nothing less. And by the way, the shoes
are brown.

Posted by: chris volkay at January 24, 2005 5:07 PM

For more, see cover of this week's NYT mag, by Daniel Bergner (who I went to grade school with!). Not sure his article hit home the way I was hoping it would, but anyway, I just asked my 15-year-old (home sick with the flu) if she'd ever encountered this online, and she said, "Nope. But I just talk to my friends, I don't go in chat rooms."

Posted by: nancy at January 24, 2005 5:58 PM

And don't forget to stock up on ammo--Super Bowl Sunday is coming up and no women is safe from the beatings.

Posted by: KateCoe at January 24, 2005 7:04 PM

Thanks for the reminder, Kate! My husband and his pals usually gang-bang me during the commercial breaks. I'd better start doing my Kegels!

Posted by: Lena, Suburban Housewife on Meth at January 25, 2005 1:43 AM

Chris -

Just a couple of comments on crime stats here in France.

At the beginning of August, 2003, French papers reported that, according to the National Statistics Institute (INSEE), the number of crimes in France, with the exception of murders, exceeded the number of crimes in the USA, per 100,000 population. The gov't response ? The spokesman went on TV and said "Ces chiffres ne sont pas pertinents." ("These figures are irrelevant.") End of issue, since this was the beginning of August and people were on vacation. (smile)

French police have a simple way of reducing crime stats: they refuse to take the complaint. This has happened to almost everyone I know, including me, and more than once. Latest ? A French friend's car in movement was hit by another car, whose driver didn't stop to exchange info. Fortunately the friend noted his number. Friend went to the local copshop to file a hit and run complaint. The complaint was refused. The cop on duty said: "It can't be hit and run ("délit de fuite") - you got the guy's number, didn't you ?"


Posted by: L'Amerloque at January 25, 2005 10:33 AM

Thanks for the comments
And, by the way, I wanted to make clear, what i wrote above doesn't apply to Lena and her
statistics and figures. I have no doubt that
Lena, tower of integrity that she is always uses her stats for truth, justice and the American tranny way. Not only that, she proves that girls
really do have heads beyond just frivolity, fashion and makeup finding Mr. Soulmate. Seasoned number cruncher that she is, I'm expecting her own Pricipia Mathmatica any day now(In between the savage gang-bangings)

Posted by: chris volkay at January 25, 2005 5:29 PM