Friday, July 30, 2010
[MUSIC FADE] BROOKE GLADSTONE: “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts.” This quote from Albert Einstein opens the books of essays titled Sex, Drugs and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict. As its editors note, many of the numbers we encounter in the media are problematic, at best. Some are inflated, like the profits from the global drug trade, some are deflated, like casualty figures in Darfur, and still others are simply pulled out of the thinnest of air. The book is a series of case studies that together illustrate how numbers are used, abused, proliferated, recycled and even laundered. Brown University political science professor Peter Andreas co-edited the volume, and he says that numbers are even chosen because of how they'll sound on the news.
PETER ANDREAS: We're not only more likely to remember the first number that we've heard, but we're likely to remember a big round number. So, for example, when the United Nations announces, as it did several decades ago, that the global drug trade was worth 500 billion dollars, that’s a memorable number. They later lowered that estimate to 400 billion, and an economist within the UN started questioning why that number. And apparently they rounded it up from 365 [BROOKE LAUGHS] because it would, well, play better in the media and be more memorable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s also the fact that we hate feeling uncertainty, especially about the issues we care most about.
PETER ANDREAS: Absolutely. The Bosnia death toll case is a particularly striking illustration. In the midst of the war, in the early 1990s, the Bosnian government, under extraordinary pressure, desperate circumstances, being asked by other governments and by the media, you know, what are the casualty numbers, and so at a press conference they simply threw out a number, 200,000 or 250,000. That became the sort of taken-for-granted numerical range. Years after the war, a research center in Sarajevo did this meticulous research that found that the number was probably half that much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is the number that you think the world remembers today?
PETER ANDREAS: The number the world remembers today is 200 to 250,000 people died in the war in Bosnia. You know, it’s interesting here because Bosnia is rightly understood as a case of genocide, but the definition of genocide does not depend on numbers of people killed. It’s about intention. So the massacre at Srebrenica in early July of 1995 killed 7 to 8,000 people, and that the international community has rightly categorized as an act of genocide. But there was such a political commitment to this larger aggregate number that to then challenge the number implies that you’re diminishing the horrendous war the country went through and the toll it took on its population.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote a chapter that focuses on global crime. As you note, these kinds of numbers are inherently hard to generate. It’s not as if drug smugglers or human traffickers file quarterly reports.
PETER ANDREAS: Exactly. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the problem here, you note, is particularly acute because mythical numbers are perpetuated by seemingly credible organizations, like governments or Interpol or the United Nations. You'd assume they'd have solid research to back up their numbers, but that’s not the case.
PETER ANDREAS: It’s pretty murky and, in fact, invisible where some of these numbers come from. If you actually look at the annual State Department report, which comes out every March 1st, basically evaluating anti-drug efforts of countries around the world – it’s essentially a report card from the United States to the rest of the world – some of it is simply blocked off as classified, so you just don't have access to the methodology, the data. Then the issue is, okay, even given the numbers, what actually do those numbers mean? So if we're told by the State Department that X country, say, Mexico or Colombia or Peru, has eradicated record numbers of coca crops or poppy fields, we are supposed to cheer. But what they don't necessarily tell you is how much new acreage there may be. The same with border interdiction numbers. We get regularly bombarded with statistics over how many seizures are made at the border of cocaine or heroin or whatnot, but what does this mean? All things being equal, if they're seizing more, it might actually mean more drugs overall are coming through. And, in fact, if they're seizing less, it also might mean that fewer drugs are coming through. But the political pressure from Washington, and then it plays itself out in the press, is to beef up seizure statistics, even though, frankly, you can read those numbers in all sorts of ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You quote Slate’s Jack Shafer deftly summarizing the use of numbers by the media. He wrote: “Reporters have so much faith in the pure power of numbers that many will inject into a piece any ones available as long as they are, one, big, two, come from a seemingly authoritative source, and, three, don't contradict the point the reporter is trying to make.”
PETER ANDREAS: Absolutely. The State Department put out a number several years ago that 600 to 800,000 people have been trafficked every year. This immediately made headlines, including, I should say, NPR, but also The New York Times and elsewhere. Now, the Government Accountability Office, sort of the investigative research branch of Congress, then issued a report questioning, seriously questioning the number, just showing how methodologically flawed it is, and you barely heard a peep. So, frankly, the State Department’s 600 to 800,000 trafficked every year is, in many circles, the sort of accepted number.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the media often have as great a stake in these numbers as policymakers do.
PETER ANDREAS: Journalists on deadline, looking to fill a blank space, they need a number for their story to actually be a story. But unfortunately the more common tendency is to report a scary big number and then not really follow up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
PETER ANDREAS: Thank you very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brown University professor Peter Andreas is co-editor, with Kelly M. Greenhill, of Sex, Drugs and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict.