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Making Up The Numbers

Many of the scary numbers we get from the “experts” are wrong, overstated, and in far too many cases, invented. They are ass numbers – numbers someone pulls out of their ass and then spews with authority. “Journalists” then print these ass numbers as if they’re real, but cover their own butts with the weasel words “according to.” “According to Dr. Bigshot McExpert drinking coffee causes a 34% increase in foot fungus.” Other “journalists” copy the story, repeating the claims. Rinse, lather, repeat and sooner or later, usually sooner, most of the public is confident in their knowledge of facts that aren’t facts at all.

This is rampant in the field of medicine, especially in medical claims used to create public policy and laws. It’s even more rampant in economics. Most economic estimates, projections and claims are just fanciful guesses designed to cause alarm where none is warranted.

Experts rely on ass numbers because they almost always get away with it. They’re seldom called on their claims. When they are, the results are usually enlightening and entertaining.

When blogger Michael Geist asked the Canadian police for proof of their claim that software piracy costs Canada thirty billon dollars a year, they said they, well, um, er, kinda sorta. . . made it up. They got their information from an industry front group that generates ass numbers for a living, and then repeated it. They also did some math, again picking random numbers for their calculations. You can read Michael’s story here.

Here’s a fun project for a rainy weekend. Scan the news for ass numbers. Pick one that seems really outrageous. If you like, you can do some research on your own to see if there’s any truth to the number, or even to find out what the real number should be, but that’s optional. Now send some e-mail to the reporters who wrote the story and any sources quoted in the article. Ask for specific sources of the numbers.

Some people will ignore you. Most who reply will evade the question. Persist. Ask them again. Be polite for at least the first few exchanges. You’ll learn a lot about trusting numbers from the experts.

A while back I did just that with ten different nicotine nanny organizations and individuals. You can read the results here.

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19 Comment(s)

  1. I did this with one of those this company is exploiting its employees, paying obscene amounts of money to its president, and taking home evil profit margins video shorts. So I checked out the company on Yahoo finance and found that the ROI was about 5%, the president made like a third of what they claimed, and the profit margins were very slim. In addition, I checked out an employee owned chained in the same industry that was rated as one of the 100 best companies to work for and compared the pay scales, they were pretty similar. In the video they showed them calling the company and getting no response. When I told them the numbers from my research and asked them were they got their numbers from, strangely they didn’t have any response, neither did the person that had forwarded me the video.

    Don Venardos | Sep 21, 2007 | Reply

  2. Quote from Dilbert Creator Scott Adams: “Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same.”

    Parrot | Sep 21, 2007 | Reply

  3. That’s not what you did with “name three” and you really shouldn’t still be pushing that rubbish. Some people make up numbers and some people carefully research them, but what you asked for was a quite unrelated list of names which there was no reason to suppose or expect your correspondents should have. Proof takes different forms and you can’t pick one and demand it alone.

    You were making a good point until that last sentence, but you just couldn’t resist making it about “nannies”, could you, even if it meant sullying your argument with nonsense?

    Andrew | Sep 21, 2007 | Reply

  4. Andy boy, welcome to my blog. Let me introduce you formally to the other readers. Andy, readers. Readers, Andy, a nanny boy with a blog full of bad grammar who thinks he can make a point by calling people twats. (Which, for the record, is one of my favorite organs.) I was tempted to remove your link, but left it there to let you hang yourself. You see, this blog is designed for people who are smarter than average. But I’ll let you hang around anyway, at least until I get tired of you.

    You claim “He repeatedly asserts that smoking is safe,” a comment I would never make. Every single nanny I’ve ever dealt with is an unrepentant liar. I’ll make you a wager, Andy boy: $100 American says you can’t find a single instance of me saying that anywhere on the internet. Is it a bet?

    When I started out the Name Three project I knew that if just one of these so-called experts pointed that out that statistics don’t work that way I’d be dead in the water. But none of them did. Not one! Why not, if they’re such experts in the field?

    And, as I’ve said before, it’s a very fun way to drive home the point that there are no real people behind the numbers.

    I despise nannies. They are fascist and evil and I will never pass up a chance to take a swing at them. But I can see why my constant attacks on them bother you. It hits home, doesn’t it?

    Dave Hitt | Sep 21, 2007 | Reply

  5. Andrew, the point of “Name Three” was not so much a legitimate argument, but rather something to poke fun of the anti-smoking groups. When you have a group of people that make even brief exposure to secondhand smoke sound like being shot in the head, surely they could give at least a few instances where it is likely they got cancer or another fatal disease from exposure to secondhand smoke.

    Harley | Sep 22, 2007 | Reply

  6. I just read more of Andrew’s blog and he is a little bitch. My favorite claim was that people smoking on the street are killing everyone around them or that car exhaust is much less dangerous than tobacco smoke.

    I suggest you do an experiment (especially since you consider yourself to be on the side of science). Find two small garages, the kind that can fit no more than two cars and make sure all doors and windows are closed. Let’s call them Garage A and Garage B. In Garage A have several chain-smokers and in Garage B have a running combustion engine car of your choice. Find several non-smokers to go into Garage A for 4 hours. Find several anti-smokers to go into Garage B for 4 hours. Since tobacco smoke is so dangerous, I suggest you go into Garage B for this experiment. To prevent any basis I suggest someone else monitor the experiment and tally the results. With modern technology the engine exhaust will be much healthier than the filthy smoke those suckers in Garage A will be breathing. You might feel a little tired, but don’t worry, a little sleep couldn’t hurt, right?

    Harley | Sep 22, 2007 | Reply

  7. I’ll make you a wager, Andy boy: $100 American says you can’t find a single instance of me saying [SHS is safe] anywhere on the internet

    You wrote this in an email to me:

    Yet, if SHS were so dangerous that it’s killed a million people in the past twenty years, why can’t the very people who make a living selling the dangers of SHS come up with three measly names?

    Because there aren’t any, that’s why. And that’s the point of the exercise.

    That is you directly asserting that second hand smoke has never once killed anyone — or at least nobody with a name. Okay, so it’s not “on the internet” as such (except on my blog), but you still said it and presuming your email is archived you can check this yourself.

    When I started out the Name Three project I knew that if just one of these so-called experts pointed that out that statistics don’t work that way I’d be dead in the water. But none of them did. Not one! Why not, if they’re such experts in the field?

    Now this is a good argument. It is. But the “name three” page doesn’t make that argument. It doesn’t even attempt to make that argument. It ends with a summary of who did and who didn’t supply three names, not a table of who did and didn’t correct your playful misunderstandings of statistics. Nowhere does it so much as mention that they were never supposed to be able to list names. I had to send you four emails before I could get you to acknowledge that fact. And never once did you make this argument.

    If you were to update the page so that it made this new argument instead then I wouldn’t mind it so much. But at present I can’t see how anyone reading it could think it meant anything but “they can’t list names so they’re lying”. Especially with the last paragraph of this update, which (to me at least) implies that you think their numbers should correspond to a list of that many people and hence if they can’t name a few the list is imaginary. But that is not the case.

    I feel like you don’t really care much whether an argument is a good one as long as it makes your point. Which is a bit crappy at the best of times but when your point is “other people use bad arguments to make a point” it’s also dreadfully hypocritical of you.

    Andrew | Sep 23, 2007 | Reply

  8. The wager wasn’t about SHS, and (literally) putting words in my mouth won’t change that. The wager was about your lie: “He repeatedly asserts that smoking is safe.” So what is it, Andy, are you just a stupid child with no reading comprehension, or are you pathologically dishonest? Based on your writing here and elsewhere, the answer is obviously the latter.

    I have been on the internet since before it was available to the general public. I have made literally tens of thousands of posts in Usenet and various forums. Many of these posts are about smoking issues. And yet, in all of that, you can’t find a single instance of me saying smoking is safe, except for lies posted on your pathetic blog. Not one single example. Since you took the challenge, I consider you took the wager, so you can send me the C note at your earliest connivance. I’ll make it easy for you: just buy me a $100 gift certificate at JR cigars.

    “…you think their numbers should correspond to a list of that many people..”

    Where did I say that? Where did I even imply that?

    Folks, here we have a perfect example of the nanny mindset. They make up numbers, and when called on them, lie about what their challengers are saying.

    Andy boy, thanks for providing yet another example that nannies are vile, dishonest, pitiful and pathetic creatures.

    Dave Hitt | Sep 23, 2007 | Reply

  9. Where did I say that? Where did I even imply that?

    Er, the end of this article, where I just said you did:

    Here’s a fun project for a rainy weekend. Scan the news for ass numbers. Pick one that seems really outrageous. If you like, you can do some research on your own to see if there’s any truth to the number, or even to find out what the real number should be, but that’s optional. Now send some e-mail to the reporters who wrote the story and any sources quoted in the article. Ask for specific sources of the numbers.

    A while back I did just that with ten different nicotine nanny organizations and individuals. You can read the results here.

    You didn’t “[do] just that”; you did something different to that. You didn’t ask for specific sources; you asked for a list of names. That’s wholly different.

    you can’t find a single instance of me saying smoking is safe, except for lies posted on your pathetic blog

    So you’re saying that you didn’t say that? I have the email archived — I know you did and I can prove it (although only to myself — I’m not giving you my GMail password). You might convince some other people that you didn’t and that I just made that up, but you’re not going to convince me. And if you really would rather attack my credibility and lie about what you said rather than simply admit to having made a mistake then I think I’m fairly well entitled to call you a twat.

    Oh, and I don’t accept cigar gift tokens.

    Andrew | Sep 23, 2007 | Reply

  10. Of course I’m not going to convince you – nannies are allergic to facts. And, for the last time (because I’m about to cut your stupidity off completely in this forum) my statements were about SHS, not about smoking.

    If I really believed primary smoking was harmless, isn’t it strange that nowhere among the thousands of posts and hundreds of articles I’ve put on the internet, you can’t find a single instance of me saying that.

    As for attacking your credibility, you’ve shown, in just these few posts, that you don’t have any to attack.

    Now go away, troll. You were amusing for a while, but you’re such a pathetic, unoriginal clone of every other mindless nanny in the world that the entertainment value expires quickly. Now you’re just annoying.

    Dave Hitt | Sep 23, 2007 | Reply

  11. When I said “He repeatedly asserts smoking is safe” I was referring to safe for people other than the smoker. I think that was pretty clear from context.

    Andrew | Sep 24, 2007 | Reply

  12. You should have worded it better, sparky.

    Harley | Sep 25, 2007 | Reply

  13. Once again, you’re caught in a lie, and once again, you try to weasel out of it.

    What a fine example of your complete lack of integrity. And considering this is the last post of yours here, (because you’ve become tiring) it is a perfect way to say goodbye.

    Dave Hitt | Sep 25, 2007 | Reply

  14. I’m not siding with Andrew on this one, but I have a few methodological concerns about Harley’s garage experiment. I imagine a running car would put out TONS more exhaust than smokers put out smoke. If the SHS garage were to be filled with the same amount of fumes as the car garage, both occupants would probably pass out from asphyxiation. This argument probably misses the point, I’m just being a stickler for details.
    On another note, I don’t think Andrew’s a liar necessarily, even if he’s technically wrong. I think of a “lie” being deliberately false. He seems sincerely conviced of what he’s saying. Smart people believe stupid things all the time, and I think it’s more of a case of cognitive dissonance than dishonesty. (For those who don’t feel like looking it up, cognitive dissonance boils down to the tendency to believe you’re right in spite of evidence to the contrary).

    Dan Pearson | Sep 26, 2007 | Reply

  15. Here is what Andrew wrote:

    “1. If you ban smoking in public, you have to ban car exhausts

    Not bad. However, there are four main flaws with this argument: if your car is modern, efficient and clean, car exhaust fumes are less toxic than cigarette smoke; cars tend to be used in well ventilated areas; car exhausts cannot be selectively aimed at people’s faces; and cars are useful rather than recreational (to the point where society would stand still if they were illegal).”

    If that were the case, leaving out that cars produce far more exhaust than what a chain smoker could produce is dishonest.

    Harley | Sep 27, 2007 | Reply

  16. I forgot to add something. In case you think he is referring to smoking in bars or other enclosed areas:

    “Poisoning people in the street is not illegal. It is perfectly acceptable to blow clouds of carcinogenic toxins into peoples faces at random. I cannot understand why this should be. Smoking in public should be banned. There is not one single reason for it to be legal. This is not a grey area. If you want to surround yourself in toxic gas, stay away from me. If I want to go into the town centre, then kindly stay at home. I shouldn’t have to avoid you. There shouldnt be ‘non-smoking’ areas.”

    Notice in the same post he says that shooting people isn’t discouraged in the United States because of the NRA. Andrew is pathologically dishonest pretty much to the point of being a compulsive liar.

    He also has a post called “Dave Hitt is still a twat”:

    Harley | Sep 27, 2007 | Reply

  17. >>On another note, I don’t think Andrew’s a liar necessarily, even if he’s technically wrong. I think of a “lie” being deliberately false.< <

    We’re getting close to a dictionary argument, and I hate dictionary arguments. I can see where you’re coming from, but have to disagree.

    A holocaust denier may absolutely, thoroughly believe that the holocaust never happened. But when he proclaims his belief he’s repeating a lie. Despite his ignorant belief, he’s still a liar in my book.

    >>He also has a post called “Dave Hitt is still a twat”< <

    Brilliant, ain’t he?

    Google gives higher rankings to sites that are older and that have a lot of links to them. This site has been around since 1999 and has been linked to by a lot of other sites, mostly from fans but some from detractors. That gives me a pretty high Google ranking on lots of keywords. Andy boy is evidently desperate to hitch his pathetic blog to mine to try to benefit from some of that. And he has, but only of someone searches on my name (which isn’t the keyword that brings most people here). Now he’s trying to boost himself yet again, and it’s just as pathetic as the last time.

    Free Clue for Andy Boy: The best way to get a high rank is to write something so good that people will want to link to it. However, unless your writing skills and cognitive skills improve dramatically that avenue will remain closed to you.

    Dave Hitt | Sep 27, 2007 | Reply

  18. Regarding the strange argument comparing secondhand smoke with motor vehicle exhaust, I have measured the pollutant concentrations caused by both motor vehicles and cigarettes. When standing on a sidewalk next to heavy traffic or even driving in traffic, with the car windows either open or closed, the in-vehicle concentrations of fine particles caused by traffic exhaust seldom exceed 30 micrograms per cubic meter. By contrast, smoking a cigarette in a bedroom causes indoor fine particle concentrations of 300 micrograms per cubic meter or more, and the levels remain high for several hours, depending on the indoor air change rate. When sitting at an outdoor patio table next to a smoker, momentary fine particle concentrations can easily exceed 1,000 micrograms due to smoke emissions from the burning cigarette, while nearby traffic seldom causes concentrations above 30 micrograms, even when the roadway is right next to the outdoor patio. Some of the measurements in published papers relevant to these points are discussed on tobaccosmoke.org

    Wayne | Feb 27, 2008 | Reply

  19. Here is an additional comment on air pollution in a garage from a cigarette. As part of a research project we conducted earlier this year on human exposure to air pollutants to evaluate continuous air monitoring instruments, I asked a smoker to smoke 2 Marlboro regular filter cigarettes in my own garage (20 ft x 21.5 ft x 9 ft) with the doors closed while we measured fine particulate matter (PM-2.5) concentrations.

    Prior to lighting the cigarette, the measured PM-2.5 concentration in the garage was at the typically low ambient level of 15 micrograms per cubic meter. Once smoking began, the fine particle concentrations quickly rose to more than 400 micrograms per cubic meter, remaining high for many hours thereafter. Because the volume of the garage (109.6 cubic meters) is similar to the volume of the rooms of a home — for example, the living room or kitchen — the garage data are relevant to smoking in a house. Performing an analogous experiment with a car would require the car’s engine to run inside the garage for 12 min, the same emission time as for the 2 cigarettes.

    It would be easy to carry out this experiment, even though driving a car’s engine in one’s living room or kitchen is not relevant to everyday behavior in most American homes. Surprisingly, my initial hypothesis for such a car experiment in a garage is that carbon monoxide (CO) and fine particulate matter (PM-2.5) concentrations generated by the car would not become very high in an enclosed garage, since today’s catalytic converters are extremely efficient in reducing CO emissions from tailpipes to nearly zero, based on previous measurements I have made of vehicle exhaust emissions, and fine particle emissions from today’s motor vehicles are quite low. Because the emission rate of fine particles from a cigarette is so great (1.4 mg/min), a bystander always sees visible smoke plumes emitted from the burning tip of a tobacco product. In contrast, we seldom see visible smoke plumes emitted from today’s car tailpipes. Thus, I conclude there is good reason to believe that a cigarette smoked in a garage will produce higher air pollutant concentrations than a motor vehicle operated under the same conditions in a garage.

    Wayne | Mar 1, 2008 | Reply

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