Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Trust your instincts

As Obi Wan almost said: "Let go your conscious self and act on instinct.  Your news articles, government agencies and other organisations can deceive you, don't trust them."

My brother Andrew (@andysstudy) has been studiously following this advice since 1977, and sent me this tweet:
See below. There are 73m children (u15) in EU I find it hard to believe 1:73 goes missing every year? http://www.euronews.com/2012/10/01/has-anyone-seen-my-child/
The link is to a Euronews article about the problem of children disappearing in the EU.  The killer statistical sentences in the article are these:
An estimated one million children go missing every year in the European Union.  These include runaways, criminal abductions, those abducted by a parent, the lost or injured, as well as missing unaccompanied migrant children.
As Andrew says, this seems like an extraordinarily large number.  In a typical large high school like the one I went to, it would mean about 4 of the 300 students in each year group going missing annually.

So where does the number come from?  Fortunately not much detective work was required on my part: this document, a summary report of a European conference on missing children from May 2012 states, as one of its conclusions, that
5. The Commission will use a working figure of 1 per cent of children in the EU (one million children per year) who go missing, pending more reliable data becoming available.
In other words, the number is made up.  It's really that simple - in the absence of any data on the subject, they created a 'working figure' instead.  So the Euronews' sentence should be "It is guessed that one million children go missing...".

Children disappearing, whether runaways, abductees, or victims of violence undoubtedly represent a terrible problem afflicting our societies, and any number would represent a great deal of untold misery for those children, their parents and families.  Which, in my view, makes it ever more critical that such information is factually correct.  I can only assume that the organisers of the conference have concluded that a headline grabbing number is important enough to justify making one up.

There is a seductive quality to choosing a small (and therefore plausibly conservative sounding) fraction, 1 percent, applying it to a very large number, 100 million, and getting a still large number, which can be used to shock people into action.

A similar example comes from Norman Myers' 1979 book, The Sinking Ark:

Let us suppose that, as a consequence of this man-handling of natural environments, the final one-quarter of this century witnesses the elimination of l million species--a far from unlikely prospect.  This would work out, during the course of 25 years, at an average extinction rate of 40,000 species per year, or rather over l00 species per day.
So, again, one apparently plausible figure is invented to justify a shocking one: 100 species going extinct per day.  Species extinction is a very real problem, but this sort of approach doesn't do anyone any credit, and only provides ammunition to those who spout guff about scientists (such as Prof. Myers) being involved in some sort of conspiracy to exaggerate environmental problems in order to get more grant money.

We deserve better.

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