The (ongoing) vitality of mythical numbers.

Media criticism.
June 26 2006 6:07 PM

The (Ongoing) Vitality of Mythical Numbers

Does ID theft really cost $48 billion a year?

(Continued from Page 1)

Scholar Peter Reuter picked up Singer's topic in a sequel titled "The (Continued) Vitality of Mythical Numbers," which Public Interest published in its Spring 1984 issue. Discussing the estimated number of heroin addicts, Reuter writes:

Behind the complex estimating formula is some very questionable, but unquestioned, data collection. There is a strong interest in keeping the number high and none in keeping it correct. In that respect the estimated number of addicts is one of a class of "mythical numbers" that is becoming the routine product of government agencies. These numbers are generated by the demand that the government appear to know a great deal more than it actually does. [Emphasis added.]

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Mythic numbers are produced, concluded Reuter, when 1) no constituency exists for keeping the numbers accurate, but a large constituency exists for keeping them high; 2) there is a lack of scholarly interest in the topic; and 3) the numbers have little policy consequence.

The $48 billion estimate qualifies on all three counts, and given the debunking by Foust, the number should be exiled from news stories forever.

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Seen other vital and mythic numbers in the press lately? Send sightings to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. EarthLink folks: Turn off your spam filters if you want me to write back.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Politico@gmail.com.

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