May 17, 2002 (Ira Pilgrim)

Can You Believe Statistics?

I do not mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy.

Samuel Butler

The latest Scare the hell out of the public fad is OBESITY. According to the latest statistics, children are fatter than they used to be. The reason, as explained by the food gurus, is that they are drinking too much soda pop and eating too much junk food. One kid, horrors, ate 5 times a week at MacDonalds.

When I was a kid, there was usually a fat kid in my class, but rarely more than one or two. I look at the kids at Laytonville elementary, middle school and high school. The composition of the classes doesn't seem very different from when I was a kid. So where did those alarming statistics come from?

I suspect that they were derived in the same way as many medical statistics are derived. Some scientist(???) looks in a on a class and sees 2 or 3 fat kids. "Aha!" he says, "Kids are getting fatter. This should be worth a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association." So he weighs and measures all of that class's members and, just as he suspected, their average body mass index is higher than it was in a class that he measured 5 or 10 years ago. Conclusion: Statistics prove that children are getting fatter.

Do I doubt that conclusion? You bet that I do. One thing that I know for sure is that most children and adolescents can put away massive amounts of calories and not show it. Grownups can't get away with it unless they are lumberjacks, professional athletes or others engaged in strenuous physical activity. The occasional fat kid may have something wrong with his metabolism, or he may do absolutely nothing except sit in front of the dinner table or in front of the TV set, where the only exercise that he gets is running to the kitchen during the food commercials.

Or maybe the statistics for articles are obtained like this:

Place: The office of the director of the National Center for Applied Statistics. The director is on the phone.

Caller: This is William Scribe with International Wildlife. I have been assigned to write an article on air pollution and I need some numbers.

Director: That's what we're here for. Do you have an active account with us?

Scribe: Yes, we do and we use it extensively.

Director: How about this: Up to 700,000 people die every year from the air they breathe.

Scribe: That's a great lead line. What else do you have?

Director: How about: Just breathing the air in Mexico City has the same health effects as smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.

Scribe: I need something about carbon dioxide.

Director: Here are a couple of lines: When carbon from burning of wood, coal, oil and other fossil fuels is released into the atmosphere, it combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in 1997 reached 363.6 parts per million, the highest in more than 160,000 years. (I got this ridiculous sentence from an actual article in International Wildlife)

Scribe: Those are great. Do you have any more?

Director: Give me a day or two to think about it and I'll get back to you.

Scribe: By the way, where do you collect all of that information?

Director: I make it up.

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