Wednesday, March 19, 2014

BENDING THE TRUTH FOR A GOOD CAUSE


CAVEAT: Before you read this, please understand that I am not a Grinch and I'm not trying to make light of serious issues. I'm just evaluating the truth value of certain claims. As a prosecutor I spent 29 years and 10 months trying to establish the truth. It offends me when anyone makes untrue claims, no matter how laudable their motives might be.
 
There’s a story circulating on the internet about Barack Obama visiting an elementary school and talking to a group of students. Obama is supposed to have begun snapping his fingers at the rate of about once every three seconds. He told the students that every time he snapped his fingers, a child died of gun violence. A student is supposed to have piped up and said, “Well, quit snapping your fingers, dumb***.”

I had serious doubts about the story, so I checked it out on the Politifact.com truth-o-meter. That website said they couldn’t find any documentary proof that this ever happened. They did find evidence that this same story was told about Hillary Clinton when she ran against Obama in 2007. They also documented a number of other variations of the story involving other public figures.

Trying to find the origin of the story, they said that the earliest variation they could find was a television ad from 2005 in which a number of celebrities snapped their fingers at the rate of once every three seconds, and in the background Liam Neeson solemnly intoned that a child died of extreme poverty every three seconds. You can see the commercial here. This commercial was financed by Makepovertyhistory.com, and although it didn't ask for money I strongly suspect it was aimed at making viewers feel so awful that they'd break out their checkbooks and send in a contribution. Now I'm 100% in favor of feeding children, but I'm also 100% in favor of telling the truth. I decided to investigate Neeson's claim.

The first thing I did was figure out what kinds of numbers they were talking about. I took 365 and multiplied it by 24, giving me the number of hours in a year. I then took that number and multiplied it by 60, giving me the number of minutes in a year. You guessed it, I then multiplied that number by 60, giving me the number of seconds in a year. Finally, I divided by three, giving me the number of children who died of extreme poverty in a year. I’m not a very good mathematician (that’s why I’m a lawyer), but I came up with 10,510,000 child deaths caused by extreme poverty.

Now, here’s where the statistics get dicey. This aggregation of movie starts and pop singers didn’t tell us what geographical area they were talking about. Given that the commercial ran in the USA and they were all speaking English, the uncritical conclusion you would come to is that they were talking about the USA. We also don’t know what they meant when they were talking about children. Were they talking about the prepubescent young or were they talking about anyone under 18? We won’t even attempt to figure out what they were talking about when they spoke of extreme poverty.

Let’s do a reality check on our number. This commercial ran in 2005, so the uncritical conclusion to come to is that they were talking about these 10,510,000 deaths occurring in 2005. I went to the CDC website and pulled up the death rates for 2005. We’ll also take the World Health Organization's definition of child as anyone under 18 living in a country which doesn’t have a lower age of majority. According to the CDC, 46,174 people under age 18 died in the USA in 2005.[1] That number includes deaths from all causes. Conclusion: Neeson was talking about a geographical area larger than the USA.  Let's take the entire world as our geographical area and test the numbers against that.

What are the child death rates worldwide? I’ve checked with the World Health Organization (WHO), and found that they keep track of child deaths under five,[2] but they don’t seem to have the statistics for children from 5-18. I’m going to assume that if the commercial got its children’s death rate from the WHO rather than conjuring it out of thin air, they were talking about the death rate for children under five.

Childmortality.org, which got its numbers from the WHO, says that in 2005 the worldwide total number of children under five who died from all causes was 8,246,000.[3] That doesn’t square well with the commercial’s claim of 10,510,000 deaths from extreme poverty alone.
Conclusion: the commercial's death rate was conjured out of thin air.

Moral: Never take anything you hear at face value, especially if it comes from TV, the internet, or the news media.