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My problem with numerical illiteracy among journalists, which I've argued before in this space and surely will again, might boil down simply to this: numbers intimidate us. Journalists' skepticism stops where statistics begin.
So far this month I've written about a New York Times story that claimed black women in Tennessee die of breast cancer at a rate 14 times that of white women, a preposterous difference that apparently went unchallenged by editors even though it was clear from other statistics in the story where the number 14 came from and what it actually meant.
I wrote about a Tribune story that employed the incoherent phrase "four times smaller" to mean, I think, a quarter the size. And I pointed out a Times story that noted American parents are far more likely to ask Google if their sons are gifted than if their daughters are, even though it's the daughters who excel in school. The essayist concluded that parents "want their boys smart and their girls skinny," oblivious to the alternative explanation crying out to be noticed by him or at least by his editors: parents worry less about girls because girls give them less to worry about.
One of my Reader colleagues pointed out another example yesterday. Again it's from the Times, which apparently believes statistics give a newspaper gravitas even if it misuses them.
Contributing op-ed writer Ezekiel Emanuel (a brother of our mayor) contributed a piece on sex among seniors. He implies that it's rampant. "Combine retirement communities, longer life, unfamiliarity with condoms and Viagra—and what do you get? You get an S.T.D. epidemic among the Social Security generation that rivals what we imagine is happening in those “Animal House” fraternities."
Well, says Emanuel, consider this "startling statistic": "In 2011 and 2012, 2.2 million [Medicare] beneficiaries received free sexually transmitted disease screenings and counseling sessions."
Is this a high number? Emanuel hints that it is. He says it's "about the same as the number who received free colonoscopies to screen for colon cancer, amounting to about 5 percent of all those on Medicare." But 5 percent is just one in 20—why is that a high number for screening and counseling that are offered gratis? Emanuel doesn't say. (And the comparison he makes is dreadful, a colonoscopy being something nobody in his right mind wants anything to do with unless a doctor insists.)
To bolster his case, Emanuel passes along statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These "show rapid increases in S.T.D.’s among older people. Between 2007 and 2011, chlamydia infections among Americans 65 and over increased by 31 percent, and syphilis by 52 percent. Those numbers are similar to S.T.D. trends in the 20- to 24-year-old age group, where chlamydia increased by 35 percent and syphilis by 64 percent."
Emanuel doesn't want to confuse us with a lot of dry numbers, but some context would have helped. For instance, here's a CDC chart that shows that from 2007 to 2011 the incidence of chlamydia among men 20 to 24 rose from 932.1 per 100,000 population to 1,343.3. Among women that age it rose from 2,940.4 to 3,722.5.
Among men over 65, the jump was from 2.6 to 3.3, and among women that age from 1.8 to 2.1.
As for syphilis, its frequency per 100,000 population among men 20 to 24 rose from 13.5 in 2007 to 23.4 in 2011, and among women that age from 2.0 to 3.8.
In the 65 and older population, the increase among men was from 0.5 to 0.8. There were too few cases among women to register as a percentage; the absolute number of cases dropped from 9 to 3.
To stick with absolute numbers, among Americans 20 to 24, there were a total of 545,934 cases of chlamydia and syphilis in 2011; among Americans 65 and older there were 1,202. To picture these STDs rampaging through both populations in the same way takes a certain bravado. It also takes credulous editors.