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Monday, March 28, 2005

Real problems, phony statistics

Posted by: Hammer / 12:37 PM

Start with the headline: Half of Sixth-Graders Bullied. That sounds bad, until you find out what "bullied" means:
Nearly half of urban sixth-grade students say they were harassed at least once in two-week period, a new study found.
Wow. "Half" has become "nearly half" and "bullied" has turned into harassed. That's a lot less alarming. What's harassment, you wonder?
The most common incidents involved name-calling, kicking and shoving. ...

"Students were bothered by all types of harassment incidents they personally experienced -- for example, being the target of insults, physical aggression, or rumors," Nishina said. "But they were more concerned about and felt sorrier for peers who encountered verbal rather than physical forms of hostility."

In a perfect world, all kids would be nice to each other all the time. In the real world, news that more than 50% of children haven't been called a name in the last two weeks should count as something of a miracle.

There are two problems at work in this story. One is that the headline exceeds the facts. The other is that "harassment" implies a pattern of behavior ("To irritate or torment persistently") which this study doesn't address.

This is similar to the binge drinking studies that are released whenever Target has a back to school sale. Binge drinking, according to the studies, consists of having 5 or more drinks in any single event. I had more than 5 drinks Friday night -- over about an 8 hour period. I was too drunk to drive most of the night -- largely because of the Jagermeister Kermit bought for Gambly which I had to drink because Gambly was driving me home -- but by the time I did get to bed I was fine.

Compare that to real binge drinking: "At the University of Virginia, a tradition that has seniors drinking a fifth of hard liquor at the final game of the football season (the so-called "Fourth-year Fifth") has killed 18 students since 1990." A fifth of liquor is 25 ounces or 750 milliliters, equivalent to about 17 drinks (1.5 ounces = 1 shot = 1 drink). There's an enormous difference between drinking 5 shots and 17.

I'm not in favor of either binge drinking or bullying. I am in favor of a rigorous intellectual honesty that recognizes the difference between playground name calling and persistent physical intimidation. We need to understand the real nature of the problem in order to identify and implement real solutions.


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