Thursday, October 08, 2009

On the rise, and it's not alone

From the east comes a request to discuss the practice of trend inflation, illustrated by this graf from a Big Important Feature:

Statistics confirm that more people are seeking treatment for heroin and other opiate use in the town. Since January 2008, 44 Smithtown residents have been referred for treatment through Pederson Krag, a Suffolk-based rehab center, according to the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. In Suffolk, that is second only to Huntington, which has a much larger population.

That might be true -- "statistics" might indeed "confirm" the asserted increase. But if they do, we don't see them, and that leaves me (despite my normally sunny disposition and trusting nature) wondering if they actually do any such thing. They can't be that hard to find, and the basic rhetorical pattern of news -- general to specific, assertion to support -- creates a natural home for them. So the broad answer is yes. I expect to see the numbers and the percentages derived from them, and when they aren't there, I suspect someone is cooking a story.
That's a bad habit that can't be covered up by good intent -- partly because a pure heart is not a valid excuse for making stuff up, but perhaps more importantly because people with bad intent find cover when people with good intent break the rules. So here are a few more illustrations.
The firefighters who show up at your door would put it a bit more politely, but this year's fire prevention campaign is aimed solidly at your carelessness.

You've been bringing your distractions home, they say - tweeting and Facebooking and watching recorded TV shows - and you're not paying attention to the pot simmering on the stove.

Unattended kitchen fires have become the nation's largest cause of house fires. Five people in Charlotte have died from them and 42 injured in the last three years, according to the Charlotte Fire Department.

Ignoring the awful syntax in the last sentence, do you see how the third graf is drawing things together? You kids with your Twitters and Facebooks aren't just destroying the language, you're a fire hazard! See what you've done to the statistics?

If you thought kitchen fires were a little less novel than the story lets on, you're in good company.* Cooking is the top cause of residential fires, and "unattended cooking equipment" is the top cause of cooking fires, and those don't seem to be new observations. It's a good cause and a good idea on the part of the firefighters; why does it have to be dressed up as another Twitter phenomenon?

OK, fine; a little sleight of hand is OK in the consciousness-raising business? The cousins at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network seem to agree! Of course there's nothing in the story to substantiate the idea that "frustration" is "growing," but if we want to complain that it's bad form to make things up just because we want people to share our views, we've given that bit of high ground away.

Editors, you can start by holding up any story that says "statistics show" until -- well, until the statistics show up. Then let's see what we can do from there.
* We were inconvenienced by just such a fire two floors below us in Charlotte 20-some years ago, when You Kids ran up to the corner to get something else to go with dinner while dinner just sort of did its thing. No serious damage, but one very annoyed cat.**
** Woodchuck and Bernie's Aunt Leela. Our first kitteh.


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