Making sure the figures don't lie Statistics: The tiny staff of the Statistical Assessment Service specializes in debunking press reports that hinge on numbers. Its director denies any political agenda.

SUN JOURNAL

October 30, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- From a little office on L Street in this unrivaled capital of hype, the Statistical Assessment Service plies the debunking trade.

That scary fact you read someplace? Based on a flawed analysis of the data.

The latest link between a suspected toxin and disease? Not statistically significant.

That intriguing tidbit you heard? An overblown claim from an advocacy group.

Hey, say David W. Murray and his associates, half the stuff "everybody knows" is not supported by the facts. Halloween is not dangerous for children. Suicides do not rise at Christmas. Full moons do not produce a run on emergency rooms or obstetric wards.

Murray, an anthropologist by training and research director for STATS, as it calls itself, scrutinizes the U.S. media for the unproved and the preposterous. He will never run short of targets.

"I've got my pith helmet. This is my village. I study the natives," Murray says. He sweeps a beefy hand at stacks of news clippings with suspect numbers circled in red ink, more evidence of the crimes of innumerate reporters.

In the four years since it was born of another Washington media-criticism group, the Statistical Assessment Service has knocked down many a flawed study and spotlighted many a journalistic howler.

Its annual "Dubious Data Awards" have been reported by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Some 1,000 journalists and policy-makers get the group's monthly newsletter, a readable collection of gaffes and goofs, and more consult its Web site (www.stats.org).

Reporters call for a guide through statistical thickets.

But the service struggles against a perception that like so many of its targets, STATS, too, has a political agenda. Much of its funding comes from conservative foundations. Many of its statistical critiques raise questions about whether alleged health and environmental hazards are as serious as media reports claim.

Murray, 52, an intense, red-haired, red-bearded man who spent years doing field work on Indian reservations and speaks Navajo, says he has no political ax to grind.

Some of STATS' reports have challenged questionable claims by conservative sources, such as Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and the Weekly Standard, he notes.

"I'm led by science. I believe in the numbers," he insists.

Some of his reports, however, suggest how hard it can be to stand aside as a neutral arbiter of numbers in a polarized debate. By taking skeptical stances on topics from needle-exchange programs to global warming, sometimes in newspaper opinion pieces, STATS has flirted with becoming one more interest group, a danger Murray says he recognizes.

Early in the job, he says, he was invited to an elegant lunch by a well-known Washington lobbyist. Only late in the conversation did it become clear that the lobbyist hoped to persuade STATS to do some work for the tobacco industry. Murray said no.

"As I got out of the cab, the guy said: 'Kid, you're gonna leave a lot of money sitting at the curb,' " Murray recalls.

If STATS goes after environmentalists' overblown claims more often than those of corporations, that's because fewer questionable corporate claims make it into print, he says.

"Journalists are drawn to stories that will get them front-page coverage -- alarm and catastrophe," he says.

The health, environmental and advocacy groups that offer such stories "tend to get somewhat less critical coverage," he says. With companies' claims, "journalists are already wary, as they should be."

The statistical service was created in 1994 by S. Robert Lichter, a political scientist who runs the parent group, the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Lichter remains president of STATS and handles all fund raising.

Lichter acknowledges the rightward tilt of key backers. "The conservative foundations fund you first because they hate the media the most," he says. But he notes that money for the center also has come from the Latino rights group La Raza, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Ford Foundation.

The idea for STATS, Lichter says, came from his observation of the growing role of numerical data in crucial policy debates. "Journalists are deluged with numbers representing findings in fields they're not familiar with," he says.

There is a natural conflict of roles as the media report science, Lichter says: "If a scientist sees 'man bites dog,' the initial response is, 'This doesn't fit what we know. We have to analyze this further.' The journalist's response is, 'Wow! What a great story!' "

Under Murray, who earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago and has taught at several universities, STATS has evolved into a slightly zany science teacher to the wayward press. Currently a three-person operation with an annual budget of about $450,000, it delights in deconstructing the alleged news.

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