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That’s what many medical patients are. Disclaimer: we really like our doctor, so this is not intended to be indicative of our feelings toward her.

We took our daughter to her 5-year old checkup a couple of weeks ago. During the examination, the doctor was reminding our daughter that no one should be permitted to make inappropriate physical contact with her (such as asking her to undress), aside from perhaps her doctor (when the parents are in the room) and her parents (that’s even going too far). During this exercise, she turned to us with a saddened look and said something like, “you can never remind them enough … 1 in 4, one in four! That’s how often it happens.”

Now, I can only assume that she meant that 1 in 4 young girls are sexually abused at some point in their lives. I don’t regularly like to challenge people, so I let this slide, thinking in my head that this is a phenomenally large number. At the very least I ought to have asked her where she obtained the statistic, but I didn’t. And I cannot seem to track it down myself.

Here is what I did track down. The 2000 Census reports that there were roughly 30 million children aged 5 to 19 years old, and roughly 20 million aged 5 to 14. Let’s assume half of these are girls. Thus, there were 15 million girls aged 5 to 19 and 10 million girls aged 5 to 14.

Then, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that in that year, approximately 879,000 children in total were victims of any kind of maltreatment (these are reported cases, so clearly the population number would be higher) and that 10% of these cases stemmed from sexual abuse. Let’s assume that every one of those cases involved girls (which is not true). Thus, roughly 88,000 cases of sexual abuse were reported in the year 2000.

Taking a snapshot of 2000 is a reasonable approximation for the likelihood of abuse over the course of a child’s young life, so what do these number tell us? Let’s take the most aggressive numbers we can and use the 10 million girls number as our denominator. This tells is that 88,000 cases of sexual abuse were recorded out of a population of 10 million girls.

That is not 1 in 4. Not even in the same galaxy. This is closer to 1 in 114. Now, this is still an alarmingly large number, but it is over an order of magnitude smaller than my doctor was claiming. In fact, if her 1 in 4 estimate were correct, then we would see 2.5 million cases of sexual abuse in a given year, not the 88,000 that we actually see reported.  I wonder where the 1 in 4 number is coming from.

Having said this, it is not very costly for me as a parent to be vigilant against these things, and so the abuse of data here at a personal level will not much affect me. But in matters of public policy, the misuse of statistics in this way can be very harmful. For example, spending too much time worrying about the situations described above may come at the cost of spending time and resources dealing with much more prevalent risks. Further such abuse of statistics might have lasting negative long-term psychological effects for both children and parents. I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking everyone is a potential molester nor do I want adults in our society to be ignoring the incredibly good social norms and conventions that allow us to live peacefully with one another in most settings in which we find ourselves interacting with each other – that sort of suspicion tears at the very fabric of civil society in ways that are probably hard to comprehend when we focus only on the issue of child abuse.

5 Responses to “Victims of Data Abuse”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    I’m also skeptical of these numbers. Aren’t we also told that something like 1 in 150 kids has autism?

  2. Colleen Filipek says:

    Doctors have to take tests every year, they read an article and answer questions on it (so its more like a really long quiz). The numbers probably came from that. It is possible that she misread or misinterpreted the numbers, or that they were talking about a much smaller age group, or even a much larger one.

  3. Harry says:

    When Wintercow writes on such subjects, my ears prick up, being the father of a daughter wintercow knows.

    Thank goodness Kathleen Sibelius never had an erg of influence over my daughter. I am lucky because I am married to a wonderful woman who helped me to be a good father. Thank God.

    Not for a second did I think this was anyone else’s concern.

    Rest well, wintercow.

  4. Hey Mike,

    I just wanted to refer you to the podcast Russ Roberts did with Ed Leamer in may of last year. It was awesome, and reminds me a lot of this post. The link is this,

    http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/05/leamer_on_the_s.html

  5. Greg says:

    “This tells is that 88,000 cases of sexual abuse were recorded out of a population of 10 million girls.”

    Is it possible that the study quoted by the doctor was an estimation of the actual number of sexual abuse cases. 88,000 were recorded, but how many were not?

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