‘Statistics’ isn’t a Scary Word; Just do the Math

Statistics has a bad reputation in some quarters, including, unfortunately, sometimes among people working in youth services. I’m not sure if this is due to an unfortunate experience in a required undergraduate class, a feeling that cold, hard numbers can’t possibly represent the complexity of human reality, or the suspicion that numbers can be manipulated to support absolutely any point of view. Whatever the source, it’s a problem because thinking clearly and making reasoned decisions often requires the ability to understand numerical arguments.

What can an understanding of statistics do for youth services workers? Lots of things, of course, but one big contribution statistics can make is provide a context for individual cases. We’re all impacted by a well-told human story, whether it’s uplifting or horrifying, but without the context that data can supply, a story is just an anecdote — fascinating, perhaps, but hardly a good basis for making decisions or allocating resources.

Take, for example, the recent school shootings in Newtown, Conn. This story received widespread coverage in the news media (a recent Google search on “Newtown school shooting” turned up 16.7 million hits), and it was a terrible tragedy that left 27 people dead, but in terms of helping us understand the risks children and young adults face from firearms, it’s not particularly useful. The reason is, because a school shooting is a rare event: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), school-associated homicides account for only 1 percent of all homicides among school-age youths. Rare events make good news stories, but they should not exert a disproportionate influence in our thinking about guns, violence, or general risks to life and limb.

According to the CDC, 2,947 children and teenagers (ages 0 to 19 years) were killed by firearms in the U.S. in 2008, and another 20,596 were injured. How many of the stories of these young people made the news? Not many, sadly, because common occurrences don’t make good news stories.

Here are a few other facts to consider: Unlike most of the children in Newtown, a disproportionate number of children and teens killed by firearms are African-Americans, who make up 15 percent of the population in these age categories but 45 percent of the gun deaths. In fact, gun homicide is the leading cause of death among African-American teenagers ages 15 to 19. In addition, most gun deaths occur among older teenagers: In 2009, 2,439 children between the ages of 15 and 19 died from firearms, versus 118 aged 10 to 14, 66 aged 5 to 9, and 85 under age 5.

The inescapable conclusion from these statistics is that the lives and welfare of American children may well be threatened by gun violence, but the threat is not borne primarily by children in elementary school, and suggestions to strengthen school security through increased use of metal detectors or armed guards fails to address the real issue. In addition, paying attention to data helps us see that the typical young person killed by a gun in America is neither white nor in grade school, but an African-American teenager.

Here’s some more food for thought for anyone who works with young people, or who makes policy affecting young people: In 2010, 4,869 people age 20 or young were killed in motor vehicle accidents in the U.S., including 402 children younger than 5. This means that children under age 5 were more than 4.5 times as like to die in a motor vehicle accident as by gunfire. Although most of these deaths did not receive the wide publicity afforded the Newtown shootings, they’re equally tragic. If you’re interested in protecting children and young people, a death is a death is a death, and it makes sense to focus resources where they can save the greatest number of lives.  Data helps us to just that.

None of this information can erase the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, but it forms a better basis for a rational discussion of the problems facing our youth than an emotional response to a rare occurrence.

There’s lots of statistical information available on the Internet, but not all of it is reliable. A good principle is to seek out information from authoritative sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/), and the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefensefund.org), all of which supplied statistical information cited in this article.


Sarah Boslaugh, Ph.D., MPH, writes for the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University; the second edition of her popular statistics handbook, Statistics in a Nutshell, was recently released by O’Reilly.


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