A new book—Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts—instructs us all to be skeptical about statistics.

Media criticism.
July 14 2010 5:00 PM

By the Numbers

A terrific new book of essays encourages us all to be skeptical about statistics.

Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts.

If you're a journalist, a gluttonous consumer of news, or are easily swayed by the slapdash, stop what you're doing and go buy a copy of Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict. Set aside a couple of hours tonight to read three or four of the essays that academics Peter Andreas and Kelly M. Greenhill collected in it. Then, sit down in front of your computer and send me an e-mail to thank me for helping to end your enslavement to the dodgy numbers that taint journalism and public policy. It's not just a good book. It's a great book. And it belongs forever on your bookshelf.

"The creation, selection, promotion, and proliferation of numbers are … the stuff of politics," the editors write in their introduction. No debate lasts very long without a reference to data, and as the numbers boil their way into the argument, you must challenge them or be burned blind by them. The essays presented in Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts—about human trafficking, the Bosnian death count, the Darfur genocide, armed conflict, drugs, terrorism, and more—counsel exactly that sort of skepticism. Here are the questions the book's editors say readers should ask when confronted with numbers:

Where do the estimates come from, who produces them, what legitimating function do they serve, and how (if at all) are they explained in official reporting? What are the implications and consequences (intended and un-intended) of choosing one set of numbers over another? To what degree are the numbers accepted or challenged, and why? What purpose do they serve?

Later, they write:

Numbers should provoke especially tough questions when the activity being measured is secretive, hidden, and clandestine. "How could they know that? How could they measure that?"

Often, the editors write, even the most rigorous-seeming statistics conceal squishy measurements. Inflated numbers are designed to create the sense that something must be done now. Depressed counts are intended to convince the recipients that the problem is too small to worry about. Whether it's body counts in Iraq or kilos of Colombian drugs, the creators and disseminators of the numbers usually have greater interest in their size than their veracity.

In an essay about illicit drug numbers, Andreas notes how the U.S. drug enforcement bureaucracy routinely manipulates figures about drug seizures to "fend off political attacks" that would bruise their budgets. For instance, an increase (or decrease) in drugs interdicted at the border may have little relation to how well U.S. Customs is doing its job because most drugs still clear the barriers. But because the public doesn't understand what interdiction numbers mean, the drug bureaucracy spends extra billions to produce bigger numbers because the public associates "more" with "better."

Mythical numbers about the size of the worldwide illicit drug market, the number of human beings trafficked across borders, the magnitude of the trade in counterfeit goods, and the amount spent on Internet child pornography are accepted unquestioningly and repeated by credulous media, Andreas writes. He cites the fine work done by Carl Bialik in the Wall Street Journalin untangling the 2006 assertion that Internet child porn was a $20 billion-a-year business. The figure was printed in a press release for a congressional hearing and published in the New York Times and the Journal. A congressional staffer told Bialik that the number came from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Its spokesman credited the consultants at McKinsey & Co. McKinsey said it got the number from an advocacy group called End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes. They claimed that the original source was the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Here's what the FBI told Bialik: "The FBI has not stated the $20 billion figure."

Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts performs similar forensics on the assertion, oft-repeated in government reports, that al-Qaida allots 10 percent of its budget to operational costs and 90 percent to administration and infrastructure. When you trace the claim to its origin—a report on terrorism—you find no footnote or sourcing at all. The author apparently concocted it from thin air.

Why did the al-Qaida budget lie get repeated over and over? As journalistic cynics like to say, some stories are too good to check: If you checked them, you'd find out that they were wrong, and then what would you publish?

Sometimes, advocates justify the pushing of unreliable numbers because their intentions are good and, after all, everybody knows the numbers are a crock, anyway. They believe that the public will only respond to the direst or most catastrophic situations, so pushing the false figures isn't really bad. It's good! Other advocates protest that the collections of objective data on the horrors of war "abstractify" and "dehumanize" its victims, writes Greenhill. Do I need to add what I think of the "intentions-based" crowd? I didn't think so.

The best advice in the book comes in the editors' concluding essay, which calls on everybody in the numbers racket—NGOs, government, academics, journalists—to confess humbly and honestly that they "don't know" rather than flinging dubious numbers.

******

Disclosure: Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts cites a couple of Slate pieces by me in a favorable manner. Cite me in your blog or Twitter feed and send the citation to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Subscribe to my Twitter feed, so I don't have to lie about the number of followers anymore. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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