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Airline bumps and bump charts

If we report it, it's a fact

David Leonhardt wrote in the NYT of a shocking incident of statistical abuse committed by Lou Dobbs and the CNN crew.

On several recent occasions, while commenting on the red-hot immigration issue, Lou and company remarked that "there had been 7,000 cases of leprosy in this country over the previous three years, far more than in the past".  (Leprosy is a flesh-eating disease prevalent among immigrants, particularly of Asian or Latin American origin.)

Nyt_leprosyWhen asked about fact-checking, Lou reportedly said: "If we reported it, it's a fact."  A quick visit to the government's leprosy program web-site immediately reveals the time-series chart, shown on the left.  With annual rates at about 150 in the last 5 years or so, one is hard impressed to find the 7,000 alleged cases!

Furthermore, because this chart lacks comparability, we fail to see that 150 cases out of a population of 300 million represent a minuscule risk.

A slight downward trend is evident in the last 20 years or so; this record is even more impressive when we realize the population grew during this period.  These points can be made clearer in multivariate plots.

Source: "Truth, Fiction and Lou Dobbs", New York Times, May 30, 2007; U.S. National Hansen's Disease web-site.



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The 7000 may have come from carelessly reading the year label as the value.


Nice bit of context adding with the "Indo-Chinese influx" label, but what is with all the crowded year labels? Would it have killed them to at least leave every second tick unlabelled?

The ordinate axis is overlabelled too, of course. Imagine if maps had scales like that?


Sally - that's a funny observation: 2003 + 2004 + 2005 = 6012. The theory of the NYT is that the cumulative cases over 30 years were about 7000, not 3 years. That is a bit incredulous because the program was explicitly comparing the last 3 years to the past, trying to infer that recent immigration may have caused a hike in infection rates.

The current controversy is the refusal by Lou to correct this mistake. He claimed that by having used the correct numbers in a different report, he has already (tacitly?) acknowledged the error.

Derek - my eyes blurred over too with the axis labels


Is it actually possible to have "a shocking incident of statistical abuse committed by Lou Dobbs and the CNN crew"?

Sure, it's abuse, but considering it's Lou Dobbs -- or really practically any news show on TV -- how shocking is bad statistical reasoning?

It's like being shocked that a 16 year old girl gets pregnant. Not a good thing, but too common for shock.

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