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Misuse of Statistics a National Problem

1 August 2012 10,371 views One Comment

I was greatly interested and pleased to learn that ASA is now giving a course, “Stats for Staffers.” I cannot think of a more important group to get lessons in statistical literacy than those who are in the corridors of power. The course seems excellent, but I think that there are even more basic needs in the area of statistical literacy, which I’m not sure are being met. I’m referring to distortions that occur in the media. CNBC’s May 7 article, “The Inflation of Life – Cost of Raising a Child Has Soared, is an excellent recent example.

This media story says, “The cost of raising a child from birth to age 17 has surged 25 percent over the last 10 years, due largely to the rising cost of groceries and medical care, according to the Department of Agriculture, which tracks annual expenditures on children by families.” Even more misleading is the headline, which says, “The Inflation of Life – Cost of Raising a Child Has Soared” [bolding is mine]. The words “surged” and “soared” are not found in the Department of Agriculture report.

The words surged and soared are obviously misleading, because a 25% increase over 10 years represents an annual rate of inflation of 2.26% (compounded). This is just about the overall rate of inflation in the United States. What we see here is verbal distortion of statistical facts, which happens frequently in the public arena.

I’m not sure whether the misuse of statistics is best addressed through education in statistical literacy, some watchdog function such as factcheck.org, or something else. But we do have a national problem, which I think should be of interest to ASA and its members.

Sincerely,
Morris Olitsky
Statistician, USDA, FNS,
Mid-Atlantic Regional Office

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One Comment »

  • J Severs said:

    I disagree with the conclusion that the cost of raising a child cannot be characterized as ‘surged’ or ‘soared’. Perhaps the increase is consistent with an overall inflation rate, but the increase will be a problem to parents whose incomes are not indexed or matched to inflation. In my opinion, ‘surged’ and ‘soared’ are defendable interpretations and are not distortions.