Thomas Sowell

"Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled." Did you know that? It is just as well if you did not, because it is not true.

It takes no research to prove that it is not true. If there had been just two children in America gunned down in 1950, then doubling that number every year would have meant that, by 1980, there would have been one billion American children gunned down -- more than four times the total population of the United States at that time.

Yet the claim that was quoted did not come from some supermarket tabloid. It appeared in a reputable academic journal. It is one of innumerable erroneous statistical claims generated by advocates of one cause or another. Too often, those in the media who are sympathetic to these causes repeat such claims uncritically until they become "well-known facts" by sheer repetition.

During the "homelessness" crusades of the 1980s, for example, homeless advocate Mitch Snyder made up a statistic about how many millions of homeless people there were in this country and threw it out to the media, which snapped it up and broadcast it far and wide. This fictitious number was repeated so often, and was so widely accepted, that people who actually went out and counted the homeless found that it was they who were discredited when their totals differed radically from Mitch Snyder's arbitrary number.

Only belatedly did some major media figure -- Ted Koppel on "Nightline" -- actually confront Mitch Snyder and ask the source of his statistic. Snyder then admitted that it was something he made up, in order to satisfy media inquiries. Moreover, homeless advocates defended what Snyder had done and called it "lying for justice."

People have been lying for centuries. What makes their statistical lies so dangerous today is that so many people in the media are ready to accept and broadcast statistics turned out by activist groups with an axe to grind -- when those groups share the liberal-left orientation of the media.

Considering how many millions of dollars the TV networks pay their anchormen, surely they could spare a few bucks to hire some professional statisticians to examine the statistics that are constantly being turned out by activists, before broadcasting them as "facts." But don't hold your breath waiting for the networks to become responsible.

Hysteria sells -- and accuracy takes time, which could make the news stale by the time the statisticians check it out. However, some of the claims are so ridiculous that all it would take would be to do what Ted Koppel did, ask what the data are based on.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate