So many statistics, and so little truth It figures: Who says the numbers never lie? Activists have come up with a lot of slippery statistics.

November 06, 1995|By Bob Secter | Bob Secter,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The sky is falling. If you have any doubts, consider this:

In a nationwide survey of 2,000 youngsters ages 10 to 16, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and widely reported by the news media, 1 of 4 said they had been sexually or physically abused in the previous year.

Not just in their lifetime. In a single year!

If you do your math, assault seems as common an adolescent affliction as acne -- about 6 million American kids annually being stomped, whomped on or otherwise subjected to unspeakable horrors.

Except, to reach those shocking numbers, researchers had to stretch the definition of abuse beyond rape, robbery, molestation, criminal assault and the like to include such activities as being shoved by your brother or getting into a schoolyard fight.

Under those terms, the most startling part of the study is that it managed to find kids who said they hadn't been victimized.

Almost daily, some new study, report, survey or poll comes out with eye-popping claims designed to stir us to action and scare us to death.

Half the population is functionally illiterate. One in 8 women will get breast cancer. Emergency room cases of battered women soar 40 percent on Super Bowl Sunday.

All chilling in their message. All guaranteed to set hands wringing, headlines blaring and Geraldo clucking.

All woefully overblown.

The latest example comes from the highly respected Carnegie Corporation, which cobbled together 10 years of research on adolescents, including the American Academy of Pediatrics abuse study, and packaged it last month into a sweeping indictment of societal neglect.

Some of the findings are hardly a surprise. Kids in their pre- and early teens watch TV to excess, spend good chunks of the day with little or no adult supervision, and too often dabble in booze, drugs or sex.

The report calls for major initiatives involving parents, schools, employers, government and other institutions to lavish attention on kids and keep them on the straight and narrow at a crucial point in their lives.

Then, to underscore the urgency of its mission, the report concludes that "nearly half of American adolescents are at high or moderate risk of seriously damaging their life chances. The damage may be near term and vivid, or it may be delayed, like a time bomb set in youth."

No one disputes that it would be nice if kids read more, spent more quality time with the folks, and led a pure and wholesome existence. It also would be great if nobody grew up poor and all kids had two parents at home.

But it also isn't going to happen. And to suggest that, because today's adolescents aren't all growing up like the Cleavers, half are at risk of "damaging their life chances" is a heck of a leap.

What are "life chances" anyway, and how do we damage them?

The Carnegie report, and its little cousin, the abuse study, are part of a growing wave of what experts refer to as "definition research" -- surveys that redefine old problems or cast new ones in terms so amorphous it's virtually impossible to dispute the bleakness of their findings.

In other words, they compare apples to oranges and find the whole fruit basket rotting.

Playing with numbers to make a point is nothing new. A century ago, Benjamin Disraeli, in a quote attributed to him by Mark Twain, equated "lies, damn lies and statistics."

In the 1950s, red-baiting Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy paralyzed the nation with false charges that 205 Communists held key State Department posts. McCarthy kept revising the number, but it wouldn't have resonated so deeply had he been vague instead of specific.

What's changed in recent years is not the penchant to distort, but the ability to do it with great subtlety.

Opinion surveys were once expensive and laborious to do. As such, they were largely the province of government agencies, universities and private professional organizations such as Gallup or Harris.

Now, however, activists no longer need to scour musty libraries or rely on official studies for ammunition to justify pet causes. Thanks to computers, the Internet and other gizmos, interest groups big and small churn out slick, home-grown surveys by the barrelful.

To be sure, much of this research is sound and compelling.

But much also is shoddy, and the news media often fail to differentiate.

Serious problems get trivialized by overblown claims that generate overheated press coverage. The world, admittedly a mean and scary place, looks even meaner and scarier. Meanwhile, elected officials who control our finite pool of resources, are all too willing to steer them to whoever shouts the loudest, not the smartest.

Sometimes, even solid surveys are undermined by the spin put on them.

Survey expert John Barry says large majorities of Americans always say "yes" when asked whether more money should be spent on crime fighting, education, medical care, drug suppression, the environment and other social problems.

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