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fearSex, Drugs, and Body Counts,

July 30, 2010  

Numbers we encounter in the media are often, to say the least, untrustworthy. Some, like casualty figures in Darfur, may be deflated, some, like the street value of drugs, may be inflated, and still others are simply pulled by institutions out of thin air. Brown University professor Peter Andreas, co-editor of Sex, Drugs and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict, says that numbers are even chosen because
of how they’ll sound on the news.

Numbers justify fear. 50,000 abducted children, for example, or 50,000 predators prowling for kids online. That last figure was once touted by the NBC show "Dateline." But where did it come from? As this piece from 2006 points out, 50,000 is something of a Goldilocks number in the media-– not too big and not too small, but, for scaring the public, just right.

KEN LANNING: I was somewhat curious about the fact [CHUCKLES] 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 50,000.

KEN LANNING: The other one that I specifically [LAUGHS] remembered kind of came in the late '80s, where there were a lot of people who were talking about satanic cults that were supposedly running around the country engaging in human sacrifices. And when you'd try to say, well, how much of this is going on, once again, [LAUGHS] the same number popped up, 50,000 a year.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sacrificed?

KEN LANNING: Yes. That's what they were alleging. [LAUGHS] This one here was a little bit more obviously problematic to me, because we do have good data on homicide. And at that time, there was somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 23,000 murders every year, so this meant that the satanists all by themselves were killing twice as many [LAUGHING] people as all the other murderers combined.


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