Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Numbers Guy

One of the annoying parts about public policy is how easily statistics get thrown around. In the early 1970s I was working for a Michigan congressman and we were opposing a taconite processing plant in upper Michigan. One afternoon we calculated the amount a taconite that was being dumped in Lake Superior by simply multiplying our assumed flow of water (width of the flue times average depth - which we guessed) times the concentration of filings in the water (again we guessed). Lo and behold, the number we used in one press release began to show up in various public discussions including in evidentiary materials in a court case.

The Wall Street Journal has begun a column called the Numbers Guy (Carl Bialik) and I recommend his columns. This week's column was on whether white kids buy more rap music (probably yes) and whether one advocate had overstated the proportion of gay parents in the foster children system in Texas (the answer is probably - based on some inaccurate extrapolations of data). The point is that lots of people try to foist baloney on us in numbers - and we buy it. Bialik tries to discover where the numbers come from. This is a really great service that should make all of us a bit more careful about believing any numbers.

His current column is at,,numbers_guy,00.html?publicf=yes.

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