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The Curse of the Factoid

December 2, 2010

The other day I read a news snippet reporting a new Council of Europe initiative to combat sexual violence against children. At the opening ceremony of the “One in Five” campaign, Maud de Boer Buquicchio, deputy secretary-general of the Council, is reported as stating that “one child in five in Europe is a victim of sexual abuse”.

One of the more powerful weapons in the armory of the politicians, pressure groups and lobbyists is the uncorroborated statistic – numbers flung into the public domain without qualification or provenance. In other words, a factoid.

Is the Council of Europe statement one such factoid? In this case, it doesn’t matter whether or not the worthy Ms Buquicchio, when she made that statement, qualified it by saying that “available data suggest that…” (which is a quote from the CoE website). When the message reached the press, it was compressed into the bald statement I quoted above. And what journalists report, many of us believe.

But hang on a minute. I am expected to believe that if I visit an average primary school playground during lunchtime, and cast an eye on a hundred screaming, cavorting, giggling kids, twenty of them will have been victims of sexual violence? Though I fully accept that child sex abuse is a serious problem, as a father of two daughters who have been through the UK school system, my whole experience of parenthood tells me that the Council of Europe is talking baloney, at least about my home country.

So I went to the Council website to see if I could find out where this statistic came from. All I could find was links to various studies that seemed to be saying that there is a need for more research. Indeed.

When I searched for the website, I used the term “one in five”. Google very helpfully provided me with a number of other findings using that ratio. For example, one in five Americans allegedly believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim. One in five Americans has some sort of disability. One in five Britons never eats at the table, would like to be French, is descended from aristocracy, and believes that Oliver Twist was written by Charles Darwin. Google even has over 30 search results asserting that President Obama is a cactus. At which point I stopped.

The great thing about factoids is that they are gifts for the axe grinder. If you have a strong, not to say obsessive opinion, go to Google and you’re bound to find a factoid to back you up. Things become less funny when influential groups pick up on information from a questionable source that is likely to outrage a sizeable community and intensify their prejudice.

The cleverer communicators deliberately seize on statistics from a reputable source and quote them out of context. Gordon Brown, the UK’s former prime minister, seemed to think that the art of oratory lay in banging out a stream of numbers to illustrate the utopia he was building, or the crisis he was averting. Clever as he was, his speechwriters weren’t always quite as smart. Earlier this year Mr Brown got a severe telling-off from the Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority for damaging the integrity of official statistics by his distortions and misquotations.

Returning to the child abuse issue, let’s look again at that statement, “one child in five is a victim of sexual violence”. First off, what are the demographics? Is this an average across all member states of the Council? Or is the figure for Germany one in two? For Italy one in ten? As a parent, I’d quite like to know if there was a 50% chance that my next door neighbour, child minder or school bus driver is a child abuser.

It’s also quite important to understand how long this is supposed to have been going on. Let’s say that the claimed level of abuse has been a constant for the past forty years. Let’s also say that average child abuser has ten victims before he or she is caught, loses interest or turns to even more serious crimes. And let’s say that 50% of the 800 million citizens of the Council of Europe member states is under the age of 40.

Now we’ll crunch these numbers to arrive at some big statistics. If the assumptions are correct, there are 80 million people within the total population who have been abused or will be abused in childhood. And there are 8 million adults, if they’re still alive, who should be behind bars, or at least on a sex offenders register somewhere. If the assumption about the average number of children abused by a single individual is too low by a factor of ten – in other words, the average abuser has one hundred victims, not ten – then there are less abusers. But we’re still left with enough adult abusers to populate a city the size of Liverpool.

Whether or not you believe that there are up to a million child molesters lurking in various corners of Europe is up to you. But I’ve just constructed a scenario based on the original quotation of Ms Buquicchio. And this scenario, if propagated by a headline-seeking journalist or maybe a Facebook campaign, is likely to frighten the living daylights out of the average parent. The resulting paranoia would be likely to increase pressure on governments to take action which might be wholly unsupported by facts, as opposed to factoids.

I have no opinion about levels of child abuse in Europe beyond what my gut feeling tells me. But what I take from this rather convoluted logic is that all of us – not just politicians and lobbyists, should get into the habit of asking more questions about the validity of statistical information before coming to potentially dangerous conclusions.

And it seems to me that with the advent of the internet and its trillions of bytes of unmediated information, our increasing addiction to small and easily digestible nuggets of news, and the willingness of elected and unelected public officials to play fast and loose with reality, we are becoming ever more gullible.

How many died in the Holocaust? How quickly is the sea level rising? How many people die every year from AIDS? How many tigers are left in the world? How much oil is left in the ground? Is gun crime on the rise or on the wane? Nobody knows the precise answers to any of these questions, yet we form opinions based on the advice of experts who claim a high level of certainty on each issue. And often enough, we believe what it suits our pre-existing prejudices to believe.

So beware of the factoid, especially when it seemingly emanates from a credible institution such as the Council of Europe.

From → Media, Social, UK

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