Thursday, December 14, 2006

Note to Journalists: Please Explain Your Stats

By Lauren Gard
Thu, Dec 14, 2006 at 3:25 PM

Raise your hand if you're tired of crappy statistics! While the Oakland Trib no doubt hoped to boost sales by plastering the alarmist headline, "Youths' No. 1 killer: Murder," across the front page of today's paper, it did little to inform readers about what the new data released by the Alameda County Public Health Department actually means. The paper states that "The homicide rate among all 15-21 year olds in the county was 21 per 100,000 people�seven times higher than national Healthy People 2010 objectives." (If a clear interpretation popped into your head, you can stop reading this now.) Also, the Trib article should have read "15-24" year olds, not "15-21." Whoops!

So let's make some sense of this. First of all, let's compare our homicide rate to some reasonable standard so we have a clue as to how alarmed we should be. How about using the rate among 15-24 year olds for the entire state, which is 17 per 100,000? Suddenly, Alameda County's problem doesn't seem so outrageous. That's because comparing our homicide rate to Healthy People 2010 objectives is like comparing how many drinks you really had at your company's Christmas party to how many you intended to have. Healthy People 2010 is a ludicrously optimistic CDC initiative in which experts dream up up a wishlist of future nationwide health stats. Case in point: The project aims to reduce the proportion of overweight or obese 5-19 year olds to five percent by 2010. Current stats for Californian kids shows that at least a quarter of school-aged kids are overweight. Good luck!

Next, let's figure out what does Alameda County's "21 per 100,000" youth homicide stat actually looks like? Between 2001 and 2003, 383 residents between the ages of 15-24 died. Thirty-three percent, or 126, were murdered. (By comparison, thirty percent died as a result of unintentional injury.) But take heart: Oakland isn't the youth murder capital of the country, much less the state. In Los Angeles, the 2003 homicide rate in the same age bracket was 30 per 100,000, and murder accounted for 39 percent of this group's deaths. See�it could be worse.

Finally, in addition to sensationalizing the homicide rate, the article's lede spills the juicy info that STD rates are "soaring." Yet its writer offers no comparison between current and previous findings to back this up. Nor does the actual report spell this out. And while the Trib points out that rates of chlamydia among young women in Alameda County are the highest in the state, it doesn't tell us what those rates are. So here you go, lest you imagine that every young female you see today is infected: Between 2002 and 2004, three percent of girls aged 15-19 reported being infected, and the rate among 20-24 year old women was about 2.7 percent. Nationally, rates in 2004 were 2.8 and 2.6, respectively. Would have been nice to know, eh?

Any questions? Check out the report.

Back to 92510, the East Bay Express news blog.

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