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.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word numbers in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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



Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger's New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.