The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

You can use statistics to prove anything. 17% of all people know that.

MDS points to the Stats website at George Mason, which has compiled a list of the seven worst instances of shoddy science reporting this year. Number one is no surprise:

1. Meth Mania - Methamphetamine (known as "meth") was the King Kong of the drug war in 2005 - decried on the nightly news, the newsweekly covers, and the morning news programs . Newsweek called it "America's Most Dangerous Drug" (and showed gruesome photos of "meth mouth."). The New York Times reported that it was more difficult to beat than crack. But academic research tells a different story. According to the University of Michigan, meth use among high school students has actually declined 28% in the last five years. And the current number of meth users (583,000) is only slightly greater than the number of crack users (450,000), although the "crack epidemic" is portrayed as a thing of the past. As for the claim that relapse rates are worse among meth addicts than other drug abusers, it's simply not true. Only six percent of those who have tried methamphetamines also reported using it in the last month. That's hardly a sign.

And, of course, the "Meth Crisis" is responsible for all sorts of bad public policy. Many states passed laws requiring people to show identification to purchase cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine, and, of course, Vick's decided to ruin Nyquil.

When I was in high school I read an excellent book called A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen Paulos. It is very critical of the media's ability to understand and report on scientific studies basic statistical information. This book helped make me the skeptical person that I am today, and I've been very pleased to see many similar books released recently as part of the pop-econ fad, recently noted by dhodge:

I had never really paid any attention to economics before, but I am fascinated by the explanations of everyday phenomena offered by the great pop economists of our day. I know enough about economics to know that there is plenty of disagreement amongst reputable economists over all but the most trivial economic problems, so I try to absorb all of these pop economic lessons with a side of skepticism.

One consequence of my new found love of economics is that I find myself thinking like a pop economist when I'm out in the world conducting my business. I have been interested in the idea of "fairly traded" food products for a while and have been meaning to figure out what exactly this label means and pass this knowledge on to my loyal readers. As luck would have it, our friends over at Marginal Revolution have beat me to it.

The single most important lesson of economics is to take a skeptical view of all information that is presented to you. The popularity of books like Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist is a very positive sign in that both call for an increase in skepticism, and provide accesible real-life examples that demonstrate skepticism in action. Hopefully pop-econ books will continue to flourish, eventually forcing the media to clean up their act. We shouldn't need an organization like Stats, but I'm glad that we have one.


  • I knew the meth epidemic was out-of-hand when I read an article about in in the Economist that said something like meth is so addictive that many (most?) people get hooked after taking it just once.

    By Blogger dhodge, at 11:45 AM  

  • Heck you don't need economics. Any social science or other field which uses statistics is enough to realize that many journalists are either spinning statistics to promote their own point or are just repeating someone else's spin without any critical evaluation. It's too bad more journalists aren't better at or more interested in portraying both sides of the story rather than just causing a stir. It is unreasonable to expect most ordinary readers to be educated on most of what they read about, but I wish more journalists had studied something more scientific than history, literature, or English (these are what most journalists who didn't study journalism majored in). I have read too many journalistic pieces that sound more like propaganda or attempts to dramatize than reporting. After watching the humanities types struggle to grasp the basic critical thinking and reasoning of law school, I really question the value of those subjects in helping people evaluate real world information.

    Good post Paul.

    By Anonymous Scott H, at 5:54 PM  

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