The Hidden Information of Stats
Updated: Nov 8, 2019
Which country statistically has the lower kidnapping/abduction rate?
The surprising answer: Columbia.
I’m sure many of you are as shocked as I was. But what this little quiz does is effectively illustrate the problem with statistics. Statistics can be easily manipulated, and they oftentimes are in order to shape the story or argument of fake news creators.
Author Hector MacDonald in his book Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality explains how it is that Canada has a higher rate of kidnapping than Columbia. He writes that it is not because Canada is more dangerous than Columbia but because Canada includes parental disputes over child custody in their kidnapping statistics. In other words, how Canada measures and qualifies an act as kidnapping is different.
Still a little shocked, I went looking for verification. I was able to independently verify that “In Canada, the most common form of child abduction is by a parent or guardian. In Canada parental child abduction refers to when a parent/guardian takes, detains, or conceals a child from the other parent/guardian.” https://missingkids.ca/en/how-can-we-help/parental-child-abduction/
What this example illustrates is critically important to news consumers. News consumers must be aware of how the information that is being measured or sought after is being defined. In addition, to being clear on how the measurable terms are being defined, consumers must be aware of another important factor.
In communicating statistics, context matters. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the deaths, injuries and property damage from motor vehicle crashes, reported that the state of Wyoming saw just 145 road deaths in 2015 compared to 3,516 motor vehicle deaths in Texas. This makes Texas sound like a dangerous place to drive in comparison to Wyoming.
However, when the number is put in the context of populations a very different picture emerges. Wyoming had an annual rate of 24.7 road deaths per 100,000 people in 2015 compared to the much smaller rate of 12.8 in a much more highly populated Texas.
So, remember to have a clear understanding of how the terms being measured are being defined and place the statistic in context.