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Scaring by numbers

France was once immune to news stories based on dodgy statistics. No longer.

Véronique Campion-Vincent

Topics Politics

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The papers are full of fashionable assertions based on ‘scary numbers’, obtained through the most questionable manipulations of statistics. Advocacy research’s aim, it seems, is less to explore the unknown than to come up with some numbers to support a pre-existing dogma. Until recently this trend was rising mostly in English-speaking countries; now, alas, it seems to have spread to France. Here are two recent examples, one international and one from France.

Child abuse:

A 2003 report of the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre opened with disturbing claims: ‘Almost 3,500 children under the age of 15 die from maltreatment (physical abuse and neglect) every year in the industrialised world. Two children die from abuse and neglect every week in Germany and the United Kingdom, three a week in France, four a week in Japan, and 27 a week in the United States.’

However, the real surprise comes when the report’s methodology is explained: the authors have decided to consider that all under-15s’ deaths of ‘indeterminate cause’ are deaths from maltreatment. In the report, the authors express ‘a growing unease about the process, and a growing certainty that child deaths from maltreatment are under-represented by the available statistics…. [They] attempt to overcome some of these problems in a novel way. To the national totals of child deaths from maltreatment, add all child deaths from “undetermined causes”.’

Whereas at the individual level the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ must apply, at the statistical level it seems some people assume the opposite. It is well known that such undetermined deaths of young people beg disturbing questions. However, it is improbable that the UNICEF report’s sweeping decision to see all of them as being caused by maltreatment will bring any more clarity.

Domestic violence and the ‘one woman in three’:

The catchier sentences in a press release issued by Amnesty International in March 2004 read: ‘At least one in every three women, or up to one billion women, have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetimes. One in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.’ This prompted a French statistician to ask ‘how do we know this?’ – and his answer was: ‘This figure is meaningless. It is only there to convince people that this is a serious issue for discussion.’

At the end of 2005, an enquiry into deaths from domestic violence in France used that fashionable method of counting deaths by timescale, which gave rise to headlines such as: ‘A woman dies every fourth day in France, victim of spouse violence.’ Yet it pays to look more closely at the original report: the figure of 211 victims of fatal spouse violence consists of 164 female and 47 male victims. Among the authors of the violence, 19 per cent of them (or 39 men) committed suicide. There were seventeen cases of euthanasia within couples, yet these were analysed separately. Why? Because these ‘compassionate murders’ did not fit the commentators’ agenda?

A glance at the numbers of suicides in France might help to put the domestic violence problem into perspective. There were 10,440 deaths by suicide in 2001 (the last figures available), which could have given rise to headlines such as ‘A death by suicide every 50 minutes in France’ or ‘29 inhabitants of France commit suicide every day’. That at least would raise the question: what is the government going to do about that?

Véronique Campion-Vincent is a folklorist attached to the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Foundation in Paris, France. Her latest book, in French, is La société parano: Theories du complot, menaces et incertitudes (2005). In English, she is co-editor of Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend (2005), in which she wrote about conspiracy theories, and author of Organ Theft Legends, originally published in French in 1997.

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Topics Politics

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