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.]
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.
Seen other vital and mythic numbers in the press lately? Send sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org. (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.)
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The Actual World
“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.