The Return of a Moral Panic
It is human nature to become panic-stricken when confronted by phenomena which we do not understand, or conditions which we do not appreciate, and to vent our feelings upon the nearest imaginary cause. … When we feel cursed we pick out some handy victim to punish. … We are in a moral panic, but it is all about our big brothers' morals and not our own. … If we will do a little less cursing and a little more thinking, the present dark spots in the…sky will disappear and the next moral panic will be less acute.1
Much of the following overly long article is recommended reading. Unfortunately, it does what too many of these sorts of articles do: wastes a lot of your reading time with anecdotes. This one starts with a lengthy description of a local fundraiser for an anti-child-sex-trafficking organization; I suggest skipping over this introduction unless it really interests you. I guess that reporters are taught to write this way in journalism school, which makes me glad that I never attended one.
Also, much of the last part of the article is a long criticism of that organization and its leader, both of which I'd never heard of and hope to never hear of again. This article is like a sandwich, the meat is surrounded on both ends by a lot of bread. So, I don't really recommend reading the entire lengthy article, but I do recommend reading the meaty middle. I've excerpted some of the meat below.
Kaitlyn Tiffany, "The Great (Fake) Child-Sex-Trafficking Epidemic", The Atlantic, 12/9/2021
The last moral panic centered on widespread physical dangers to America’s children began in the early 1980s. …John Walsh, who later spent more than two decades as the host of America’s Most Wanted, claimed that 50,000 children were abducted “for reasons of foul play” in the United States every year. He warned a Senate subcommittee in 1983: “This country is littered with mutilated, decapitated, raped, strangled children.”
I discussed this false statistic earlier this month2.
The panic prompted the building of shopping-mall kiosks where parents could fingerprint or videotape their children to make them easier for police to identify. … As a 1986 story in The Atlantic recounted, the nonprofit National Child Safety Council printed photos of missing children on 3 billion milk cartons; a person would have had to be paying close attention to notice that all the photos were of the same 106 faces. (The photos also appeared on grocery bags, Coca-Cola bottles, thruway toll tickets, and pizza boxes.) “Ordinary citizens may have encountered explicit reminders of missing children more often than for any other social problem,” the sociologist Joel Best wrote in 1987. …
Yet there was still a backstop, a way for the panic to end. The Denver Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its 1985 story laboriously debunking the statistics that had caused such widespread alarm. The actual number of children kidnapped by strangers, according to FBI documentation, turned out to be 67 in 1983, up from 49 in 1982. A two-part PBS special explained the statistics and addressed the role that made-for-TV movies and media coverage had played in stoking the fire…. With the arrival of better information, the missing-children panic faded. …
As in previous moral panics, messages about the threat of child sex trafficking are spread by means of friendly chitchat, flyers in the windows of diners, and coverage on local TV news. But the present panic is different in one important respect: It is sustained by the social web. On Facebook and Instagram, friends and neighbors share unsettling statistics and dire images in formats designed for online communities that reward displays of concern. … The phenomenon suggests the possibility of a new law of social-media physics: A panic in motion can stay in motion. …
The so-called social media make it much easier for misinformation and mass hysteria to spread rapidly through society, which is why I prefer to call them "anti-social media". Moral panics have been part of every human society, but we've entered an era in which they are now a global phenomenon, affecting billions of people, and literally spreading through society at close to the speed of light.
All over the country, well-meaning Americans are convinced that human trafficking—and specifically child sex trafficking—is happening right in their backyard, or at any rate no farther away than the nearest mall parking lot. A 2020 survey by the political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Adam Enders found that 35 percent of Americans think the number of children who are victims of trafficking each year is about 300,000 or higher; 24 percent think it is “much higher.” …
During the previous wave of this moral panic, the "Goldilocks number" of missing children was 50K, and we've seen that that was at least an order of magnitude (OoM) too high2. So, in addition to monetary inflation, there seems to be Goldilocks number inflation.
Of course, child sex trafficking does happen, and it is horrible. The crime is a serious concern of human-rights organizations and of governments all over the world. Statistically, however, it is hard to get a handle on: The data are often misleading, when they exist at all. Whatever the incidence, sex trafficking does not involve…hundreds of thousands of American children.
When today’s activists talk about the problem of trafficking, knowing exactly what they’re referring to can be difficult. They cite statistics that actually offer global estimates of all forms of labor trafficking. Or they mention outdated and hard-to-parse figures about the number of children who go “missing” in the United States every year—most of whom are never in any immediate danger—and then start talking about children who are abducted by strangers and sold into sex slavery.
This is the same thing that John Walsh did when he went from talking about 50K missing children to claiming that the country was "littered with mutilated, decapitated, raped, strangled children.”
While stereotypical kidnappings—what you picture when you hear the word—do occur, the annual number hovers around 100. Sex trafficking also occurs in the United States. The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline has been operated by the anti-trafficking nonprofit Polaris Project and overseen and partially funded by the Department of Health and Human Services since 2007. In 2019, it recorded direct contacts with 14,597 likely victims of sex trafficking of all ages. (The average age at which these likely victims were first trafficked—“age of entry,” as the statistic is called—was 17.) The organization itself doesn’t regard its figure for direct contacts as one that should be used with too much confidence—it is probably low, but no more solid data exist.
There is a widely circulated number, and it’s even bigger…: 800,000 children go missing in the U.S. every year. The figure shows up on T-shirts and handmade posters, and in the captions of Instagram posts. But the number doesn’t mean what the people sharing it think it means. It comes from a study conducted in 1999 by the Justice Department, and it’s an estimate of the number of children who were reported missing over the period of a year for any reason and for any length of time. The majority were runaways, children caught up in custody disputes, or children who were temporarily not where their guardians expected them to be. The estimate for “nonfamily abductions” reported to authorities was 12,100, which includes stereotypical kidnappings, but came with the caveat that it was extrapolated from “an extremely small sample of cases” and, as a result, “its precision and confidence interval are unreliable.” Later in the report, the authors noted that “only a fraction of 1 percent of the children who were reported missing had not been recovered” by the time they were counted for the study. The authors also clarified that a survey sent to law-enforcement agencies found that “an estimated 115 of the nonfamily abducted children were victims of stereotypical kidnapping.” The Justice Department repeated the study in 2013 and found that reports of missing children had “significantly decreased.” Plenty of news outlets have pointed out how misleading the 800,000 figure is. Yet it has been resilient. …
The sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the term moral panic in his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics3. Cohen presented panics as intense but temporary—specifically, as “spasmodic.” … He posited that moral panics run out of steam because people get bored; or they go out of fashion, like a cut of pants or a type of salad; or it becomes clear that the instigators are crying wolf; or whatever they’re saying is accepted as a fact that most people can live with. Yet even fleeting moral panics can have lasting consequences. …
A panic can leave a mark even if it falls short of changing the law. Among other things, as Cohen wrote, it can change “the way the society conceives itself.” What does it mean that a deluded understanding of child trafficking is now the pet cause of the local florist and law firm and mortgage brokerage and foam-insulation contractor? What does it mean if American communities are cleaved along a neat divide, separating those who see themselves as caring about the lives of children from those who, because they reject the conspiracy theories and inflated numbers, apparently do not?
It's revealing to substitute "COVID-19" for "child trafficking" in the above paragraph.
And what does it mean if a moral panic doesn’t prove to be spasmodic? Cohen floated the idea of “a permanent moral panic resting on a seamless web of social anxieties,” then swatted down his own suggestion, pointing out that permanent panic is an oxymoron. Cohen died in 2013 and never had the opportunity to consider the way the internet gives each of us the power to take on work as champions of morality and marketers of fear. His analysis of prior panics can tell us only so much about what to expect from this one.
I'm with Cohen: a "permanent panic" is an oxymoron. However, this does not mean that a society cannot become invested indefinitely in paranoid conspiracy theories based on pseudoknowledge. Exhibit One: Nazi Germany.
Exhibit Two: The United States is about to enter its second year of sustained over-reaction to COVID-19. As the variants of the disease become progressively less dangerous, the state of fear of many people seems to increase. The less they have to fear from the disease, the more they seem to fear it.
The one thing that has surprised me about the last two years is how persistent and resistant to correction misinformation about the disease is. We may be about to find out that the same thing is true of conspiracy theories about missing children.
- Prof. G. E. Allen, "Moral Panics.", United States Investor, 5/5/1906, p. 24
- It's not true that Cohen "coined" the term, though he may well have popularized it. See the epigraph to this entry, above. This appears to me to be at least approximately the same sense of the phrase as used today.
Disclosure: In abridging the above article, I changed the paragraphing and rearranged the order of the excerpts.
The New Logicians' Club's Mad Tea Party
A friend of mine whom I will call "Alice" is an excellent logician, and therefore a prospect for membership in the New Logicians' Club*. I invited her to attend an afternoon tea party meeting for prospective new members of the club. For some reason that I had nothing to do with, the party was given the theme of Lewis Carroll's mad tea party. As a result, those attending the party were dressed as characters from Carroll's Alice books. I don't have to tell you how my friend dressed. I came as the Mock Turtle, which meant that I was a mock Mock Turtle. But that's beside the point.
The club was playing its usual game where every member or prospective member was a truth-teller or a liar for the occasion. Given the theme of the party, the truth-tellers were called "sane" and the liars "mad".
Alice was seated at a table with three established members, each of whom knew the sanity status―that is, sane or mad―of the other two. They were, according to their name tags, "Bert", who wore a top hat with a prominent price tag, "George", who had a long pair of fake ears on top of his head, and "Mac", who appeared to be dozing. Alice, as the prospective member, did not know the sanity statuses of the three members, and whether she became a member herself would be decided by her success or failure in figuring it out.
I was seated at the next table, so I could hear some of what went on at Alice's table, but I didn't catch everything.
"Hello, I'm sane," she introduced herself to the other three, "are any of you three also sane?"
Bert poured Alice a cup of tea, but I missed what he said in answer to her question, though I could tell that it was either "yes" or "no".
Alice then turned to George and, gesturing towards the sleeping Mac, asked quietly: "Is he sane?"
I couldn't hear George's whispered reply, though again I could tell that it was either "yes" or "no". However, whatever Bert and George answered to her questions, Alice was able to figure out the sanity status of the others at her table from their answers. So, now Alice is a new member of the club.
What was the sanity status of Bert, Mac, and George?
Extra Credit: What were the last names of the three members at the table?
What can you conclude about the sanity status of a member who calls another member "mad"?
What can you conclude about the sanity status of a member who calls another member "sane"?
There are only four possible combinations of answer to the two questions: both yes, both no, Bert yes and George no, and Bert no and George yes.
Bert was mad and both George and Mac were sane.
Explanation: Before we look at the possible answers to the two questions, let's examine the hints:
- Hint 1: A sane person will truthfully call another person "mad" only if that other person is mad. If a mad person calls another person "mad" then that mad person is lying, which means that the other person is sane. So, from the fact that one person calls another "mad", we can conclude that the two are opposites.
- Hint 2: A sane person will truthfully call another person "sane" only if that other person is sane. If a mad person calls another person "sane" then that mad person is lying, which means that the other person is mad. So, from the fact that one person calls another "sane", we can conclude that the two are the same.
As mentioned in Hint 3, there are only four possible combinations of answers to the two questions. Let's look at each possibility:
- Both Bert and George answer "Yes": Given that Bert answers "Yes" to the first question, either he is sane or all three are mad. Since George answers "Yes" to the second question, he and Mac must be the same, as we saw in the discussion of Hint 2. So, either all three are sane, all are mad, or Bert is sane and George and Mac are mad, which means that Alice would not be able to figure out the sanity status of all three.
- Bert answers "Yes" & George answers "No": Again, either Bert is sane or all three are mad. Given that George answers "No" to the question, he and Mac must be opposites, as we saw in the discussion of Hint 1. This rules out that all three are mad, which means that Bert must be sane. However, Alice can't know whether George is sane and Mac mad, or vice versa.
- Both Bert and George answer "No": Then Bert must be mad, because a sane person would never answer this way, but at least one of the other two is sane. Again, George and Mac must be opposites. So, Alice could conclude that Bert is mad, but only knows that either George is sane and Mac mad or the other way around.
- Bert answers "No" & George answers "Yes": So, Bert is mad, but at least one of the other two must be sane. Also, George and Mac must be the same as each other. Now, if George and Mac were both mad, then all three would be mad, but we know that they're not. So, George and Mac are both sane. This is the only one of the four possibilities that allows Alice to figure out the sanity status of all three, which means that this is how Bert and George must have answered the questions.
Extra Credit Solution: This is by far the hardest part of this puzzle since it requires special knowledge and cannot be solved purely by logic. So, if you didn't get it, don't worry. Bert's last name is Russell, Mac's is McTaggart, and George's is Moore. The three are Bertrand Russell, J. M. E. McTaggart, and G. E. (George Edward) Moore, also known as "the mad tea party" of Trinity College, Cambridge. See: Norbert Wiener, A Life in Cybernetics (2017), p. 151.
Disclaimer & Disclosure: This puzzle is a work of fiction. The names were changed to protect the mad.
*For previous puzzles at the New Logicians' Club, see:
- A Meeting of the New Logicians' Club, 5/30/2021
- A Second Meeting of the New Logicians' Club, 7/4/2021
- Halloween at the New Logicians' Club, 10/31/2021
- Thanksgiving Dinner at the New Logicians' Club, 11/25/2021
- Christmas at the New Logicians' Club, 12/25/2021
Critical Thinking and Sociology
Quote: "…[T]his book views critical thinking as a set of tools for evaluating claims. A claim is any statement asserting something to be the case. We encounter claims all the time in conversations, in what we read, in the media, indeed, on pretty much every occasion we connect with other people, and we've all had to learn to interpret those claims. We classify claims as being more or less convincing, using terms like fact or information to identify claims that seem sound, and terms like rumor or fake to label claims that seem more dubious."1
Title: Is That True?
Comment: This is a good title for a book on critical thinking, since such thinking usually starts when you ask yourself the title question about a claim.
Subtitle: Critical Thinking for Sociologists
Comment: I'm disappointed by this subtitle and hope that the book is not so narrow as to make it of little or no use to non-sociologists. The author writes:
This book discusses critical thinking for sociologists. Why sociology? Well, for starters, I am a sociologist, so it is what I know, study, and teach. There are lots of books that approach critical thinking in very general terms. Many of them are written by philosophers, and I tend to find them awfully abstract. I am less interested in grand theoretical principles for critical thinking than in understanding how practicing sociologists might think more critically. In particular, this book focuses on thinking critically about arguments made by sociologists and other social scientists about social issues. … The resulting arguments are important because they often are used to justify social policies that affect lots of people. Therefore, we need to be able to think critically about these arguments.2
I'm not a sociologist, nor am I particularly interested in sociology, and I assume that neither are the vast majority of my readers, so the subtitle is somewhat off-putting. I wonder why the author, let alone his publisher, would choose to risk alienating 99% of its potential readership. While some books on critical thinking by philosophers may be abstract and theoretical, there are many good general critical thinking books.
As the author mentions, many people are affected by such "social issues" as crime and poverty, as well as by the policies adopted to address those issues, and we are regularly confronted with arguments about those issues. We all need to be able to critically evaluate them, not just the sociologists among us. Moreover, sociology may provide insights into such issues not available from logic or philosophy, so a critical thinking book written by a sociologist―but for everyone, not just sociologists―would be welcome. I hope that that's what this book is.
Author: Joel Best
Comment: As mentioned, Best is a sociologist, and I've already read his three books on the sociology of statistics and highly recommend them: Damned Lies and Statistics, More Damned Lies and Statistics, and Stat-Spotting. As a writer, Best is skilled at explaining technical subjects, such as statistics, in language that anyone can understand, which is why I look forward to reading this book despite its foreboding subtitle.
Summary: I've only been able to read the first two chapters and part of the third, so most of this summary is based on the table of contents. The part that I've read is the beginnings of an introduction to critical thinking, defining some of its basic concepts, and not at all specific to sociology. There are fourteen chapters and an afterword on why critical thinking is important, though if you're not convinced of its importance by then, why read all the way to the end?
Judging from the table of contents, many of the chapters treat standard critical thinking topics: arguments (2 & 3); causation (4); expert opinion (5); language, including jargon (8); and evidence (12). However, some of them do seem to get into sociological topics, including echo chambers (13) and taboo topics (14). These are areas where sociology may be able to cast some light on social failures to think critically, and I hope that the treatment of these issues is not such that only sociologists will understand it.
Excerpt: "Instead of simply assuming that we already know what is true, critical thinking requires that we consider the possibility that our assumptions might be wrong. At bottom, critical thinking is about evidence. Evidence is information that can help us judge whether a claim is true. When we hear a claim, we ought to evaluate the evidence for and against it. … Thinking critically involves examining the evidence for a claim and deciding whether it is convincing. When this book refers to 'critical thinking,' then, it will mean ways of weighing evidence and distinguishing between stronger evidence and weaker evidence. … Critical thinking in the sense of weighing evidence is a skill. It can be learned, and one gets better at it with practice."3
General Comment: As we've seen especially in the last two years, social factors play a big role in the spread and persistence of pseudoknowledge. For instance, there are incentives for many activists and politicians to exaggerate problems in order to get things done, as well as disincentives for journalists or other politicians to debunk such exaggerations. So, this book is timelier than ever, at least if it is accessible to everyone.
Also, emotions such as fear and hatred seem to spread socially in such a way as to produce moral panics or mass hysteria about social problems such as abducted children or epidemic diseases. Because we are social animals, there is a tendency for us to run with the herd, even when the herd is heading for a cliff. Critical thinking should help us develop a resistance to being frightened or stampeded into false conclusions. For this reason, a critical thinking book by a sociologist, but for everyone, is sorely needed. I hope that Is That True? is that book.
Comment: This book is almost a year old, so it's not brand new, but for some reason I just heard about it.
Disclaimer: I haven't read this book yet, so can't review or recommend it. However, its topic interests me, and may also interest Fallacy Files readers.
- Chapter 1, p. 2, emphasis in the original. All subsequent citations are to the new book.
- Chapter 1, pp. 6-7.
- Chapter 1, pp. 3-4, emphasis in the original.
Healthy or Healthful?
Here's a quote within a quote from a book I've been reading:
"Medical interventions would be more successful if, instead of focusing on weight, they encouraged patients to shift their body composition toward lean muscle mass by recommending more exercise, more sleep and more healthful [sic] eating."
However, the regimen of more exercise, more sleep, and healthy eating have been attempted religiously…but to no avail.1
The "sic" in brackets is a way for the author to indicate that the word "healthful" is in the original quoted matter, but that something is wrong with it. The next sentence, which is outside of the quote, paraphrases the last part of the quoted sentence, but changes "healthful" to "healthy", showing that the author thought that "healthful eating" was incorrect, and that it should be "healthy eating" instead.
However, the word "healthful" is a perfectly fine English word whose primary meaning is "conducive to good health"2, so that "healthful eating" is a diet that supports health. Now, "conducive to health" is also one of the meanings of "healthy", though its primary meaning is "possessing health"3, which means that you can speak of a "healthy horse", but also of its "healthy diet" of hay and oats. So, the author was not wrong to write of "healthy eating".
Some commenters on the English language advocate a distinction between "healthy" and "healthful", reserving "healthy" for living things in a state of health, and "healthful" for what brings about or supports that state4. Bill Bryson makes an interesting point:
Some authorities maintain that healthy should apply only to those things that possess health and healthful to those that promote it. Thus we would have "healthy children" but "healthful food" and "healthful exercise." There is no harm in observing the distinction, but also little to be gained from insisting on it. If we are to become resolute, it would be better to focus on healthy in the sense of big or vigorous, as in "healthy wage increase," which is both inexact and overworked.5
I agree with Bryson's latter point, despite having used the phrase "healthy skepticism" earlier this month6, though I would defend that phrase as an idiom. A healthy skepticism is vigorous if not big. I also agree that there is no harm in making this distinction, but would go farther in saying that it's a good distinction to make. As for being resolute, I see no reason why we cannot both observe the distinction between "healthful" and "healthy" and avoid using the latter as a euphemism for "large".
The health of a language is supported by the existence of precise if subtle distinctions in the meaning of words that are superficially synonymous. So, the distinction between "healthy" and "healthful" is a healthful one for a healthy English language.
- Kaiser Fung, Number Sense (2013), p. 67. Bracketed comment in the original.
- "Healthful", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 1/26/2022.
- "Healthy", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 1/26/2022.
- Robert J. Gula, Precision: A Reference Handbook for Writers (1980), p. 215.
- Harry Shaw, Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions (Revised edition, 1987), under "Healthful, healthy".
- Bill Bryson, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting it Right (2002), under "Healthy, healthful, salutary".
- Credibility Checking, Part 1: Compare & Contrast, 1/7/2022.
The Goldilocks Number
If you recall the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, Goldilocks trespassed in the house of the bears where she found three bowls of porridge one of which was too hot, one too cold, and one just right, which she ate. She also found three beds, one too soft, one too hard, and one just right, which she took a nap in. So, a Goldilocks number is one that is not too small, not too big, but just right.
Just right for what? Numbers are often introduced into the media by activists, interest groups, or politicians to quantify some supposed problem that they want people to do something about, even if just to write a check. In order to motivate people, the number needs to be big enough to frighten or concern them about the problem, but not so big as to trigger their skepticism.
The earliest use of the term "Goldilocks number" that I can find is from the following radio interview:
Ken Lanning: I was somewhat curious about the fact that it was 50,000. That number had popped in the past, because I had been an FBI agent for over 30 years. In the early 1980s, this was the number that was most often used to estimate how many children were kidnapped or abducted by strangers every year. But the research that was done in the early 1990s found that somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 to 300 children every year were abducted in this manner.
Brooke Gladstone: It seems bad things don't come in threes―they come in fifty thousand. … So why is 50,000 such an unaccountably sticky figure?
Ken Lanning: Maybe the appeal of the number was that it wasn't a real small number―it wasn't like 100, 200―and it wasn't a ridiculously large number, like 10 million. It was like a Goldilocks number―not too hot, not too cold.1
I used the Goldilocks number for abducted children as an example of credibility checking earlier this month2, concluding that it is not credible. But where did the number come from? Here is one possibility:
John Walsh, today widely known as the host of America's Most Wanted and a crusader for victims of crime…testified before a U.S. Senate committee…. In preparing for his testimony, he sought numbers to back up his cause. It seems the U.S. Senate is as addicted to numbers as the press is. "We were told not to come here without some statistics," he testified. And then he offered a staggering one. Walsh said that 50,000 American children were abducted by strangers every year. It was the birth of Goldilocks: a big, fat, round number that fit just right for senators and the press. …Walsh later admitted, "I can't defend those figures." But the number stuck and was reported again and again.3
Actually, in that hearing, Walsh did not say that 50K were abducted "by strangers", but that they were "abducted for reasons of foul play", which would probably be by a stranger but not necessarily. Here's his own account of where he got the number:
After contacting and speaking with many of the twenty or so individual missing children agencies throughout the country, it appears that statistics indicate that there are over one hundred and fifty thousand (150,000) individual children missing each year. Approximately one hundred thousand (100,000) of these are runaways and children snatched by ex-parents. The unbelievable and unaccounted for figure of fifty thousand (50,000) children disappear annually and are abducted for reasons of foul play.4
He calls the Goldilocks number "unbelievable", which I agree with, but this doesn't seem to have led him to doubt the result. In addition, The Associated Press quoted Walsh in The New York Times under the sub-heading "'Unbelievable' Figure", but raised no questions about its accuracy5. Both Walsh and the AP reporter seem to have used the word "unbelievable" in the same way as the word "incredible" is often used―"That's incredible!"―not to express skepticism, but simply to marvel at something.
Earlier in the same hearing at which Walsh testified, a statement by Senator Claiborne Pell, a member of the committee who was not present for the hearing, was entered into the record:
The Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] estimates that about 50,000 children under the age of 17 disappear each year in the United States. These children are not runaways, most of whom eventually return to their homes unharmed, or the objects of parental kidnappings inspired by custody battles. These are children who are the victims of abduction and crime, who are taken by adults who want children of their own, molested by other children or by sex offenders, or who are lured into prostitution or child pornography.6
Yet, later in the same statement, Pell writes: "The fact is that no one really knows how many missing, murdered, and molested children there are in the United States.6" So, did HHS really make that estimate? I haven't been able to find any evidence of it other than Pell's statement.
In a later hearing, Senator Orrin Hatch claimed in a written statement: "…[L]ast year the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] approximated the number of children abducted by strangers to be 50,000.7" However, in a later passage from the same hearing, Senator Arlen Specter questioned the representative of the FBI, Oliver Revell, about the statistic:
Specter: The statistics we have from the FBI are that 50,000 are concluded to have been abducted.
Revell: Senator, I do not know where that statistic came from, but―
Specter: It comes from Senator Hatch's statement, which we put in the record earlier today. … He attributes it to the FBI. So the question to you is, is Senator Hatch accurate?
Revell: I do not know. I know that we have approximately 16,000 children in the NCIC [National Crime Information Center] missing persons file. I do not know where the 50,000 came from. I would have to check with Senator Hatch's staff to see where the statistic came from. I do not personally know.
Specter: We would be interested if you would follow up on that and ascertain the accuracy or inaccuracy of that statement.
Revell: I do not argue with it; I simply do not know the basis of it. …
Specter: I am informed, Mr. Revell, that the 50,000 figure comes from the FBI estimates to the Congressional Budget Office, and that it has been furnished to Senator Hatch from staff….
Revell: All right. If that is correct, then I would have to see the basis for the formulation of those statistics. I personally am not aware of the factual basis of that. It may be accurate.
Specter: We would appreciate your following up on it.
Revell: All right.8
Given that the FBI's own spokesman doesn't know where the statistic came from, how did it end up in Hatch's statement attributed to the agency? I don't know whether he followed up as Specter suggested, but there's nothing further about it that I can find.
At this point, it looks like an unsolved, and perhaps unsolvable, mystery where the Goldilocks number came from and how it was arrived at. It seems to have sprung up, perhaps independently, from different sources at about the same time. Perhaps the number was being passed around among activists, bureaucrats, and politicians, all of whom had their own uses for it.
However, we can solve the mystery of how accurate it was. Several years later, a government study was done to determine how many children run away, disappear, or are abducted. Ironically, the study was done in accordance with the Missing Children Act of 19849, which was at least partly the result of lobbying by Walsh and other activists, as well as the actions of Pell, Hatch, and other politicians.
According to the Executive Summary of the report of the study, the estimated number of non-family, legally-defined abductions in 1988 was 3,200-4,600, and the number of "stereotypical" kidnappings was 200-30010. Thus, taking the broader definition, the Goldilocks number was exaggerated by an order of magnitude, that is, it was over ten times too high.
Why should we worry about the Goldilocks number? It seems to have led to some good results, including the government conducting the very study that debunked it. But exaggerated claims can lead to exaggerated responses, including moral panics:
The last moral panic centered on widespread physical dangers to America’s children began in the early 1980s. Several high-profile and disturbing stories became media spectacles, including the 1981 murder (and then beheading) of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who was abducted from a Sears department store in Hollywood, Florida. The Adam Walsh story was made into a TV movie that aired on NBC in October 1983, the same year that the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz was fictionalized in the theatrically released movie Without a Trace. Adam’s father, John Walsh, who later spent more than two decades as the host of America’s Most Wanted, claimed that 50,000 children were abducted “for reasons of foul play” in the United States every year.11
One reason that Goldilocks numbers survive and are seldom debunked by the news media or politicians is that there is little to gain from doing so. You might think that pointing out that the problem is at least an order of magnitude smaller would make activists happy, but it undermines their attempt to alarm parents and politicians into taking the actions that the activists want. As Carl Bialik said later in the radio interview previously quoted:
I completely agree with their goal of protecting children, but they often will use dubious numbers to advance that goal. I think one of the reasons that this is allowed to continue to happen is that there isn't really a natural critic. Nobody really wants to go on the record saying, you know, it turns out this really isn't a big problem, because then you can be accused of being on the side of the sexual predators.1
Of course, to point out that the number of children abducted every year by strangers in the United States is not in the tens of thousands, but in the hundreds or low thousands is not to be on the side of the abductors. Hundreds of abducted children a year is still too many. But if we don't correctly understand the size of the problem, we risk over-reacting to it. We're not doing children or their parents any favor by cultivating paranoia that every stranger that they meet is a danger to them.
- "Prime Number", On the Media, 5/26/2006. See also: Brooke Gladstone, "The Influencing Machine", Slate, 5/19/2011.
- Credibility Checking, Part 1: Compare & Contrast, 1/7/2022.
- Craig Silverman, Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech (2007), pp. 126-127.
- "Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Investigations and General Oversight of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources", United States Senate, 10/6/1981, p. 25.
- Associated Press, "Action on Lost Children Urged", The New York Times, 11/22/1981.
- Senator Claiborne Pell, "Prepared Statement of Senator Pell", in "Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Investigations and General Oversight of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources", United States Senate, 10/6/1981, p. 3.
- Senator Orrin G. Hatch, "Statement on Child Kidnapping & Victimization", in "Child Kidnaping. Oversight Hearing Inquiry into the Priorities and Practices of the FBI in Child Kidnaping Cases before the Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary", United States Senate, 98th Congress, 1st Session, 2/2/1983, p. 14.
- Ibid., p. 67.
- David Finkelhor, Gerald Hotaling & Andrea Sedlak, "Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children in America", United States Department of Justice, 5/1990, p. vi.
- Ibid., pp. v & ix.
- Kaitlyn Tiffany, "The Great (Fake) Child-Sex-Trafficking Epidemic", The Atlantic, 12/9/2021.
The Pandemic of Pseudoknowledge1
You've probably heard about the false claims about COVID-19 made by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor during oral argument before the United States Supreme Court a few days ago. If not, here are relevant passages from the transcript:
…[W]e are now having deaths at an unprecedented amount. … Counsel, those numbers show that Omicron is as deadly and causes as much serious disease in the unvaccinated as Delta did. Look at the hospitalization rates that are going on. We have more affected people in the country today than we had a year ago in January. We have hospitals that are almost at full capacity with people severely ill on ventilators. We have over 100,000 children, which we've never had before, in serious condition and many on ventilators.2
Almost none of this is true, but I'm not going into details since it's already been fact checked by others3. Moreover, it's not just incorrect, but some of it is "wildly incorrect", to quote The Washington Post's Fact Checker, who gives her four Pinocchios, the maximum number.
Where did this misinformation come from? The claim that "we have over 100,000 children…in serious condition and many on ventilators" may come from the fact that there are over 100K cases of COVID-19 among children, but few of these are serious and it's doubtful that any, let alone "many", are on ventilators.
Clearly, Sotomayor is not simply ignorant; if she were, she would either have been silent or simply said that she didn't know. Instead, she uttered egregious falsehoods. She also certainly wasn't lying; what motive would she have for doing so, especially given the fact that the falsehoods were quickly debunked by fact checkers? What's left? She genuinely believed factual claims that were not just false, but outrageous.
Sotomayor is not the only offender on the court; here's Associate Justice Stephen Breyer during the same hearing:
I mean, you know, 750 million new cases yesterday or close to that is a lot. I don't mean to be facetious.2
That is a lot: a lot more than it is. Presumably, Breyer meant to say "thousand" instead of "million"―he got the number correct earlier and later. A thousand, a million, a billion―what's the difference? It's a lot! And I do mean to be facetious. Breyer's innumerate claim is not as bad as Sotomayor's because it appears to have been a slip. Still, to confuse thousands and millions and not be corrected by anyone present seems to show a lack of number sense, that is, a feel for the relative sizes of different numbers.
Nonetheless, this degree of innumeracy and pseudoknowledge at the highest levels of American government is alarming. I don't know why, but neither counsel nor the other justices challenged these falsehoods. Was this because they didn't realize that the claims were false, or were they afraid to challenge and perhaps publicly embarrass Sotomayor or Breyer?
For almost two years now we've had a pandemic of misinformation about the coronavirus and its subsequent variants, despite―or rather because of―the constant coverage from the major news media. As a result, pseudoknowledge about COVID-19 reaches to the highest levels of the U.S. government. Nine people will make a decision about how the government handles this disease that will affect the lives of a third of a billion Americans. Given that the court is being asked to adjudicate a case involving COVID-19, you might expect them to do their homework and be well-informed about it. Instead, they're well-misinformed.
I've been pointing out for the last year and a half that public health officials and the major news media have been doing a terrible job of informing the American people about the coronavirus and its variants4. What little survey evidence I've seen indicates that the effect has been largely to grossly misinform the general public. The current incident, as minor as it is in other ways, shows that the misinformation goes to the highest levels of the U.S. government and to our "best and brightest".
I don't know the solution to this problem, but the first step in solving a problem is to recognize that you've got one. Houston, we have a problem!
- What is pseudoknowledge? It is a false belief that masquerades as knowledge.
- "Nat. Fed'n of Indep. Bus. v. Dept. of Labor", Supreme Court of the United States, 1/7/2022
- I've put the following in alphabetical order by first author's last name, but if you're in a hurry, read the Annenberg first or only:
- Jon Greenberg & Louis Jacobson, "Fact-checking Sotomayor on kids with severe COVID-19", PolitiFact, 1/7/2022
- Khaya Himmelman, "Fact Check: Sonia Sotomayor Claimed 100,000 Children Are In ‘Serious Condition’ With COVID", The Dispatch, 1/7/2022
- Glenn Kessler, "Sotomayor’s false claim that ‘over 100,000’ children are in 'serious condition’ with covid", The Washington Post, 1/8/2022
- Eugene Kiely, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley & Jessica McDonald, "FactChecking the Justices’ COVID-19 Claims", Annenberg Fact Check, 1/10/2022
Credibility Checking, Part 1: Compare & Contrast
What is credibility checking? It's a process that lies halfway between simply questioning a factual claim and giving it a complete factual check-up. Since a thorough fact check takes time and effort, a credibility check is a way to test whether a claim is likely to be worth the investment. Unlike a fact check, a credibility check uses only two things: what you already know and ballpark estimation. As a result, checking credibility usually takes no more than a few minutes.
What is credibility?
The following words are synonyms: credible, plausible, and believable. I will use all three interchangeably, mainly for the sake of variety, but I call the technique I'm describing "credibility checking." All three words can be used to describe both claims and the people who make them. A credible witness is one whose testimony is plausible, and plausible testimony enhances the believability of a witness. In the following, I will be examining only the credibility of claims.
Literally, a claim is credible, plausible, or believable, if it is able to be believed. However, perhaps the best way to understand it is by contrast with its antonym, namely, "incredible". Often, the word "incredible" is used in the sense of "surprisingly good" or just "very good", but I mean it in its literal sense of "unbelievable" or "implausible". A claim is incredible if there is good reason in logic or common knowledge to think that it cannot be true.
For instance, the claim that the 7 × 13 = 27 is incredible1. If I multiplied and got that result, I would be sure that I had made a mistake. A feeling for what is credible and incredible in mathematics is called "number sense", which is an aspect of numeracy. Number sense is an important skill because mistakes in calculation are unavoidable, even if you use a calculator, since a misplaced decimal point or an incorrect leading digit will cause a miscalculation. A seemingly small error in data entry can cause an enormous mistake in the result of a calculation, and to catch such mistakes requires at least an order-of-magnitude (OoM) estimate of what the result should be.
A claim is plausible if it is not incredible, that is, if there's no prima facie reason to think that it cannot be true. That a claim is incredible does not automatically mean that it's false, since some seemingly incredible things have turned out to be true. However, an incredible claim requires very strong evidence to establish its truth. For instance, if my great aunt Bertha claimed to have a mermaid in her backyard swimming pool, I would have to see it in person to believe it. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", as Carl Sagan liked to say2, and incredible claims are extraordinary. Similarly, that a claim is credible is no reason by itself to think that it is true, since many credible claims are false. For example, it's plausible that I have a great aunt Bertha, but I don't.
A healthy skepticism is a prerequisite for plausibility checking. What is a healthy skepticism? It's a golden mean3 between gullibility and cynicism. When confronted with a factual claim, the gullible person will accept it without question, at least if it fits in with that person's prejudices. In contrast, a cynic will reject the claim out of hand without bothering to check it, especially if it conflicts with the cynic's prejudices. Confronting the same claim, the healthy skeptic will question it, but not reject it without further examination. The skeptic asks: "Is that right? What's the evidence for it?" Moreover, unlike the unhealthy cynic, the skeptic is willing to accept the claim if sufficient evidence is found for it.
Given that your skepticism is healthy, the first thing you will do is a credibility check. Since you're confronted with hundreds, or even thousands, of new factual claims every day, there's no way that you can fact check them all. At best, you may be able to check a few claims each day. So, how do you decide which to check? Credibility checking.
In 1983, Senator Orrin Hatch made the following claim: "…[L]ast year the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] approximated the number of children abducted by strangers to be 50,000.4" This claim is backed by impressive credentials: it comes from a United States Senator who attributes it to the FBI, a government agency that collects crime statistics among other things. So, you'd expect it to be right, and you may understandably be inclined to accept it without checking. However, Hatch was a politician who may have had political motives for making the claim, and there's always the possibility of a mistake, such as an accidentally added zero or a misunderstanding of what the number quantified5. For this reason, it's a good idea to give it a quick credibility check. But how do you do that?
Use What You Know
You probably know more about many things than you think you do, but unless you are an expert in historical crime statistics, it's unlikely that you'll know whether 50,000 children were kidnapped by strangers in the U.S. in 1982. However, you can use what you do know to estimate what you don't.
For instance, do you have some idea of how many people die in automobile accidents every year in the U.S.? Is it hundreds? Is it thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? You don't need to know the exact number; all you need is an estimate of its OoM, that is, whether it is in the tens, hundreds, thousands, etc. If you haven't already done so, mentally estimate the number of deaths from car accidents in a typical year.
I don't know what you estimated, but here's one way to think this through. We'll estimate both a minimum and a maximum OoM, then the number we want will be in between.
Judging from experience and media reports, the number of fatalities in my own state―which is a typical state―must be at least in the hundreds, and maybe as much as a thousand per year. So, nationwide the number will be at least in the thousands, and probably the tens of thousands, given that there are fifty states. For this reason, let's set the minimum at tens of thousands.
Could the number be as high as the millions? Surely not; there would be much more concern about road safety than there is now if it were. What about hundreds of thousands? This is not so clear, but consider the fact that COVID-19 killed roughly 400,000 people both last year and the year before6. Surely, if the number of traffic deaths was near this or greater, we would be hearing more about it than we do. So, let's set the maximum at tens of thousands.
This means that both our minimum and maximum are in the tens of thousands, that is, at least 10K and at most 100K. How close is this estimate to your own? More importantly, how close is it to the actual statistics on deaths from automobile accidents?
Nowadays, the number of automobile fatalities tends to range between 30-35K a year; for instance, it was over 32K in 2013, according to the C.D.C.7. In the late twentieth century, it tended to be somewhat higher, usually running between 40 and 50 thousand8. So, this was a good ballpark estimate: while it's not precise, it's at the right OoM, and that's all we need.
Compare & Contrast
One way to check the credibility of what you don't know is to compare it to what you do know. You don't know how many American children were abducted by strangers in 1982, but you now know approximately how many people of all ages died in traffic accidents in that year.
The number of traffic fatalities that year was in the tens of thousands, which means that the claimed number of child abductions is of the same OoM. How does this affect its credibility? Have you ever noticed that every major car accident in your area is reported by the local news media? Wouldn't the news media report every missing child and give it even more attention than a car accident, even a fatal one? How many such stories have you noticed in your local press?
Do you know anyone who was killed in an automobile accident? Have you had any friends or family members who died in this way? Was anyone you went to school with, or worked with, a traffic fatality? Compare this with kidnapping by strangers. Was any friend of yours, family member, fellow student, or co-worker kidnapped by a stranger as a child?
Do you remember AMBER alerts9? This is an alert that is broadcast to the community when a child goes missing. They're still a thing. Now, not every child who is missing has been kidnapped by a stranger, but every child abducted by a stranger will be missed at some point by parents or other adults, so there ought to be an alert. How many AMBER alerts did you notice in the past year?
This credibility check suggests that the claim that 50,000 children were abducted by strangers in 1982 is implausibly high, but it does not prove that it's wrong. However, that's not the purpose of a credibility check; rather, the failure of the claim to pass this check is a reason to go ahead with a full fact check.
Next Month in Part 2: Divide & Conquer
- See: "Abbott & Costello 7 × 13 = 27", YouTube, 9/6/2015.
- Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1980) p. 73. Sagan adapted this saying from one of Marcello Truzzi's; see: Quote…Unquote.
- The "golden mean" is the name given by the Roman poet Horace to Aristotle's doctrine that virtue is a mean between two extremes, both of which are vices; for instance, bravery is a mean between rashness and cowardice. See: Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy (Revised second edition, 1984).
- Senator Orrin G. Hatch, "Statement on Child Kidnapping & Victimization", in "Child Kidnaping. Oversight Hearing Inquiry into the Priorities and Practices of the FBI in Child Kidnaping Cases before the Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Ninety-Eighth Congress, First Session", 2/2/1983, p. 14.
- Another possible source of confusion comes from the fact that the scope of "last year" is ambiguous: is it last year that the 50,000 children were abducted, or last year that the F.B.I. made the claim? If the latter, then what was the time frame of the statistic? Was it also last year, or some longer period of time? In the text above, I assume that 50,000 children were supposed to have been abducted in 1982, that is, "last year".
- Julie Bosman, Amy Harmon, Albert Sun, Chloe Reynolds & Sarah Cahalan, "Covid deaths in the United States surpass 800,000.", The New York Times, 12/15/2021.
- "Motor Vehicle Crash Deaths", Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7/6/2016.
- "Motor Vehicle Safety Data", Bureau of Transportation Statistics, accessed: 1/7/2022.
- "About AMBER Alert", United States Department of Justice, 10/20/2019.