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A Tyranny of Facts : America, Where 27 Million Adults Are Functionally Illiterate, Has Fallen in Love With 'Instant Statistics'

March 15, 1987|JACK SMITH

In this age of computerized research we are always reading the results of some inquiry expressed in numbers or percentages.

Just recently I read in the paper that the percentage of American children who live with both biological parents is 68.

Also, the percentage of Americans who regularly attend religious services is 42.

The number of U.S. doctors whose licenses were revoked in 1985 was 406.

The number of different familial relationships for which Hallmark makes cards is 105.

The percentage of the federal income taxes paid by individuals in 1981 that went to military programs was 45.5%. The percentage in 1986 was 51.4.

The number of schools that invited Lee Iacocca to speak at their graduation (in June, 1986) was 150.

These were all taken from Harper's Index, a monthly summary of such unrelated statistics.

According to a team of University of California researchers, males make 96% of the interruptions in cross-sex conversations.

We are perhaps the best-informed generation in history, and much of what we know about ourselves has come to us in this statistical form.

The kind of figures I have just cited are presented in support of almost every opinion, argument, or supposedly impartial magazine or newspaper article. I'm sure that congressmen use them to underpin their bills in Congress.

We are bombarded with percentages that tell us, usually to our surprise and dismay, what we are like.

The number of Detroit residents 15 or younger who were shot to death in 1986 was 40.

The percentage of Americans who don't recognize Dan Rather is 55.

And so on.

What troubles me about these statistics is that sometimes they are not attributed to any particular source, and if they are attributed, it's to a source we've never heard of.

Thus, we are told that the number of lawyers who were disbarred in 1985 was 226, but we aren't told who said so.

I call these "instant statistics." They are easy to invent, and they may be used without attribution in support of anything you happen to be promoting.

My integrity, of course, does not permit me to invent instant statistics, but I admit I have done so a few times without thinking of it as unethical. I usually go for 90%--as in "90% of married women detest washing dishes."

I can't prove that, and I don't know whether any poll has ever been taken. But 90% sounds like a good, safe statistic, and I have no fear of reprisal in using it.

I might also say, without fear of contradiction, that 50% of all married persons are women.

But just for fun, let me invent a few instant statistics that might be correct--and certainly can't do any harm.

Ninety percent of married women do not play golf.

Eighty-nine percent of married women have never read James Joyce's "Ulysses." (And aren't going to.)

Sixty-two percent of men drink beer and are overweight.

Seventy-two percent of women who are called Ms. would rather not be.

Twenty-one percent of children like asparagus. Fourteen percent of children like spinach. Eighty-seven percent of children like pizza and Coke.

Sixty-nine percent of divorced persons are women. (Divorce kills more men.)

Sixty-three percent of married men have cheated on their wives. Nineteen percent of married women have cheated on their husbands. (That's for the last year for which statistics were available--1956.)

College graduates have more fun.

A total of 27 million American adults are functionally illiterate. (That one isn't mine. It's supposed to be a fact.)

Eighty-four percent of high school students have never heard of the Battle of the Bulge; 96% do not know who the second President of the United States was; 87% have never heard of Karl Marx.

Given a choice, 86% of women would rather go out to dinner; 66% of married women clip recipes; 72% of married women wish their husbands would shape up; the rest have given up, or don't care.

Eighty-one percent of married women hate football; 81% of unmarried women also hate football, but they don't say so. Ninety-four percent of married men would rather watch football and drink beer than work in the yard.

Eighty-six percent of drivers on the freeway exceed the speed limit. Sixty-seven percent run red lights. Fifty-eight percent drive after drinking.

Ninety-two percent of men have never killed a bear; 99.9% of women have never killed a bear. (That is the closest to 100% that women get in anything I know of.)

Seventy-eight percent of women feel that if they had it to do over again, they'd do it differently. The same percentage of men feel the same way.

Eighty percent of teen-agers think that their parents are a drag; 80% of parents are doing the best they can.

Ninety-nine per cent of all statistics are wrong.

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