Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The 35 trillion murdered children statistics

Years of debating on online discussion forums familiarised me with some of the more popular fallacies associated with various ideologies (often because others were quick to point them out when I made them myself). In online debates between diverse participants if someone makes a claim another will demand evidence, or supply counter evidence. Thus I've learned that Mein Kampf is not banned in 'the West', the world's poorer countries for the most part aren't getting poorer, and crime rates in developed countries aren't spiralling out of control. With my bullshit detector upgraded thus, I am quicker to sense nonsensical claims and hopefully less likely now to make them myself. (Feel free to point them out, when I do, however.)

At its most simple, if I hear something that sounds really shocking and disgraceful, little alarm bells ring and I quickly double-check to see if it is indeed true. If someone says the EU health and safety regulators are forcing tightrope walkers to wear hard hats, have a quick check and expose the nonsense for what it is.

I'm studying statistics for social science now so I'm getting a bit more aware of these kinds of myths in statistics, and of the mistakes I've made in interpreting statistics in the past too. My errors and the mad claims I've come across online pale, however, by comparison with this wonderful example in Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics; Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists. Best was reading a dissertation prospectus by a student who was proposing a Ph.D. research project and read this:
'Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled.'
Clearly Best's bullshit detector starting jingling like mad:
I assumed the Student had made an error in copying it. I went to the library and looked up the article the Student had cited. There, in the journal's 1995 volume, was exactly the same sentence: 'Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled.'

This quotation is my nomination for a dubious distinction: I think it may be the worst - that is, the most inaccurate - social statistic ever.
Best explains the madness of this claim by suggesting we imagine that in 1950 only one child was shot. In 1951 there would be double: two children. 1952: four children shot.

1953: 8
1954: 16
1955: 32
1956: 64
1957: 128
1958: 256
1959: 512
1960: 1,024
1961: 2,048
1962: 4,096
1963: 8,192
1964: 16,384
1965: 32,768 (Best writes: 'in 1965 the FBI identified only 9,960 criminal homicides in the entire country, including adult as well as child victims'.
1966: 65,536
1967: 131,072
1968: 262,144
1969: 524,288
1970: 1,048,576
1971: 2,097,152
1972: 4,194,304
1973: 8,388,608
1974: 16,777,216
1975: 33,554,432
1976: 67,108,864
1977: 134,217,728
1978: 268,435,456
1979: 536,870,912
1980: 1,073,741,824
1981: 2,147,836,648
1982: 4,294,967,296
1983: 8,589,934,592 ('about twice the Earth's population at the time'.)
Another milestone would have been passed in 1987, when the number of gunned-down American children (137 billion) would have surpassed the best estimates for the total human population through history (110 billion). By 1995, when the article was published, the annual number of victims would have been over 35 trillion...
Best was intrigued that a journal was claiming that more children were shot in the United States in the 1980s than all the humans who had ever lived, so he contacted the author who pointed to the original source, from the Children's Defense Fund which wrote in 1994: 'The number of American children killed each year by guns has doubled since 1950.' Doubled since 1950, not doubled every year since 1950!

Probing a little deeper, Best realised:
This is not quite as dramatic an increase as it might seem. Remember that the U.S. population also rose throughout this period; in fact, it grew about 73 percent - or nearly double. Therefore, we might expect all sorts of things - including the number of child gunshot deaths - to increase, to nearly double just because the population grew. Before we can decide whether twice as many deaths indicates that things are getting worse, we'd have to know more.
This observation fits in Best's introduction so I'm looking forward to reading the rest. Already in class my lecturer has pointed out common errors which I'm guilty of, some of them on this blog, sorry! I'm interested in using statistics to understand how societies work and I do not accept the claim I occasionally encounter that statistics are so easily manipulated that they 'can say anything'. We simply need the skills to tell apart the nonsense from the truth, the little alarm bells that chimed in Joel Best's mind when he realised his student was claiming that the entire global population was shot dead in 1982. Readers who agree might like this 16-page guide for journalists on using statistics, written by the British Straight Statistics team.


  1. A wide range of estimates continue to exist on the scope and magnitude of human trafficking, both internal and transnational. The International Labor Organization (ILO) – the UN agency charged with addressing labor standard, employment, and social protection issues – estimates that there are 12.3 million people in forced labor, bonded labor, forced child labor, and sexual servitude at any given time; other estimates range from 4 million to 27 million (DOS, 2006). The U.S. Department of State continues to produce estimates of the annual worldwide trafficked population at 800,000 to 900,000, with 14,500 to 17,500 trafficked in the United Statesalone. [19] These estimates, while widely quoted, are questioned by many, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which reviewed the estimation methods used by the U.S. government, ILO, the United Nations Office on Drugs and crime (UNODC) and IOM. GAO found that all of these estimates are questionable because of methodological weaknesses previously mentioned. Limitations also include the inability to replicate estimates based on potentially unreliable estimates not suitable for analysis over time. It goes on to report that country data are generally not reliable or even available much less comparable and that there is considerable discrepancy between the numbers of observed and estimated victim of human trafficking. [20]

    As mentioned above, the Governments Official Report on Trafficking, the annual TIP report, which is published annually, shows considerable fluctuation in official yearly estimates of human trafficking into the United States.. The 2000 report, for example, stated that there were between 45,000 and 50,000 persons trafficked into the U.S.The 2002 report stated that 50,000 females were trafficked into the U.S.for sexual exploitation, the first year the estimates clearly did not include labor trafficking or adult males. In 2003, the Trafficking in Persons Report estimate mysteriously dropped to between 18,000 and 20,000. The number dropped again in 2004 to between 14,500 and 17,500. Estimates have essentially remained the same in recent reports.[21]

    I believe that it is a mistake to continue to quote statistics that may not be reliable or valid such as those the U.S.government continues to cite based on estimates alone. Funding for concerns such as human trafficking can often be emotion-based. Just as the initial funding was largely due to the emotion stirred by the figures reported.


  2. Sex Trafficking in made up statistics:

    One of the major responsibilities of the Office to Monitor Trafficking in Persons is to prepare the U.S. Government’s Official Report (TIP) on trafficking annually. The Trafficking in Persons report is considered to be the most comprehensive anti-trafficking review issued by any single government. [18] The reports over the years since the TVPA was enacted in 2000, varied considerably in official yearly estimates of human trafficking into theUnited States. The report quoted from 45,000 and 50,000 persons trafficked into theU.S. that was reflected in the 2002 report which included only estimates of females that were trafficked into theU.S. for sexual exploitation. The first year the estimates clearly did not include labor trafficking or adult males. In 2003, the Trafficking in Persons Report estimate mysteriously dropped to between 18,000 and 20,000 and dropped again in 2004 to between 14,500 and 17,500. Similar discrepancies exist in the U.S. TIP Global estimates the 2001 and 2002 TIP Reports estimated worldwide trafficking to be 700,000. This estimate increased to 800,000 to 900,000 in the 2003 report then decreased to a range of 600,000-800,000 in 2004.

    According to an expose printed in the Washington Post [17] ­­ Health and Human Services (HHS) was paying people to find victims. As a result of criticism of how lack of accountability has wasted tax dollars, the Bush administration paid aNew York public relations firm 12 million dollars to launch a major campaign to train people to find victims. Last fall, HHS announced the funding of an additional $3.4 million in new street outreach awards to 22 agencies and groups nationwide. The Washington Post article cited the outcomes of one agency funded with this money inDallas, The agency received $125,000 and used the funds to increase awareness and educate area hospitals, police departments, domestic violence shelters and any other agency that might come in contact with victims of human trafficking over a year. To date, three victims have been reported.

    Washington post article:



    there had been broad speculation that between 40,000 and 100,000 sex workers from all over the world would enter South Africa because of that tournament.

    The 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, held in Vancouver, Canada were also subject to similar speculation – but according to a study conducted afterwards by University of British Columbia researchers, mass trafficking didn’t happen there, either.

    The study says that “despite sensationalised media coverage” prior to the Games, there was “no evidence in this study to support concerns of an influx of sex workers or reports of trafficking of women or girls”.




  3. Fascinating Jeff, thanks for that.


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