Wednesday, 27 June, 2001

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Lies, damn lies, and statistics.  This from the office's Jokes mailing list:

Number of physicians in the US: 700,000.
Accidental deaths caused by physicians per year: 120,000.
Accidental deaths per physician.... 0.171 (U.S. Dept. of Health &
Human Services)

Number of gun owners in the US: 80,000,000.
Accidental gun deaths per year (all age groups): 1,500.
Accidental deaths per gun owner: 0.0000188

Statistically, doctors are approximately 9,000 times more dangerous than gun owners.

"FACT: Not everyone has a gun, but everyone has at least one Doctor."

Please alert your friends to this alarming threat.  We must ban doctors before this gets out of hand.

What struck me as humorous about this little gem was that it illustrates a fairly typical type of argument that you can find on Internet news groups and such web sites as Plastic.com or slashdot.org.  The attacker presents two sets of seemingly related statistics (often made up on the spot), and then makes an outrageous statement based on a comparison of the statistics.  Replace "doctors and guns" with "nuclear plants and coal-fired plants," or "blacks and whites," or "Democrats and Republicans."  The issues change but the arguments remain the same.  SOSBNB (see yesterday's entry).

These kinds of messages are often referred as trolls (as in trolling for replies) or flame bait.  All too often, though, the person who posts such a message actually believes that it is a valid argument, and will defend it with increasingly shrill and incoherent messages.  It's an interesting phenomenon to observe, but gets tiresome quickly.