Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Statistics in the mainstream media 

It’s often said that you need numbers to prove a hypothesis. Well, if you use the right numbers in the right ways, there are a lot of things you can “prove”.

Steven McDermott cited a Xinhua report that cited a Channel NewsAsia report that cited the following statistics from Singapore’s Obstetrics and Gynaecology Society: “The number of tertiary-educated married women going for abortions has tripled in the last 16 years, from some 300 in 1988 to more than 1,000 last year.”

This is a familiar issue. Back in November last year, I had posted the following excerpt from Today:

One group of women yesterday bore the brunt of accusations from a prominent gynaecological group in Singapore. Citing abortion statistics from the Ministry of Health, the Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Singapore (OGSS) chided tertiary-educated married women for a three-fold jump in the numbers of such women going for abortions — from 324 cases in 1988 to 1,070 last year...

However, OGSS did not measure the jump in abortion in this group against the corresponding growth in the number of women with higher education over the last 15 years. A check with the Department of Statistics by Today found that the number of university-educated women has increased from 17,300 in 1990 to 68,900 in 2000...
Interestingly, in citing the statistics, the Xinhua report added the following statement that was not found in the original Channel NewsAsia report: “while those who are not enough educated tend to use contraceptives”.

Journalists do sometimes get tripped up by statistics. Wang Zhen has an example from The Straits Times on the AIDS issue.


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