Going Statistically Senile

Just some stats to start you off…

  • 150 000 women die of anorexia in the USA per year
  • You will accidentally swallow an average of 8 spiders a year
  • men think about sex every 7 seconds
  • There are 200 000 stalkers in the USA

Wait… what? did you believe my statistics? …well do you believe these ones? top five false figures 

The study by Clive Seale in 2010, titled ‘How the mass media report social statistics: A case study concerning end-of-life decisions’ looked at the progress of statistics about this topic through reporting by the mass media. The study showed the way certain numbers underwent ‘number laundering’ where a simple ‘guess’ by one individual gets repeated so many times it essentially becomes ‘fact’. It also showed a phenomenon termed ‘mutant statistics’ whereby the meaning behind the statistic is left on the floor, forgotten, and trampled on.


Mutant statistics and number laundering can rage out of control like a wildfire in the Australian bush. the numbers can be “stretched, twisted and mangled and distorted”, until a virtually unrecognisable statistic appears. It’s all like an intense and speedy game of chinese whispers… a game that no one can win…


But is it a case of chinese whispers or something more sinister at work? journalists need snappy stories, memorable stories, and so using the shock factor is an obvious tool to use to stay in the fore front of peoples minds.


I don’t know about you but I feel like I’ve been lied to, like I’ve been deceived!

What do the journalists think? do they believe that they’re simply ‘putting a spin’ on news stories? or do they know that what they’re writing isn’t true? or do they genuinely believe that what they are writing is correct?

Do you think there is a way to stop this? Do you think there is a way to tell fact from fiction when reading a news story?


Seale, C. (2010) How the mass media report social statistics: A case study concerning end-of-life decisions. Social Science and Medicine, 71: 861-868.

Image 1:http://spong.com/article/26199/Industry-Chinese-Whispers-2-4-Xbox-720

Image 2: http://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/f/false_information.asp

Image 3:http://ultimategerardm.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/wikipedia-usage-data-is-complete-again.html

By zoesimmons

4 comments on “Going Statistically Senile

  1. Did you know that 72.4% of all statistics are made up on the spot? It’s a pretty high number and you’re not going to believe it but I made that statistic up all by myself!!!!

    It probably wouldn’t be too far from the truth though. Because we have information at our fingertips we tend to think the news we read or watch on TV must be true because it would be so easy to fact check and that media outlet would lose all credibility. I never actually check my facts though. And although I’m trying really hard not to, I do get influenced by what I read!

    The only way to stop this in my opinion is to read things with an open mind and if it’s interesting enough for you to repeat, then make sure you have done your own due diligence. That way your not propagating mis-information.

    • Haha I always called my blog post something very similar to that statistic! I completely agree with you, TV and other media outlets are thought of as ‘peer reviewed’. God knows why though.

      I think it is much easier for us (science students) to look at these kinds of articles with a critical mind, however there are many people out there who are just going to believe everything they read, unfortunately. It’s for these people that the media should be more diligent about presenting real facts.

  2. I feel that it’s true that statistics is used commonly as a shock factor (too high stats or too low stats. For example, it really gets people’s attention when you tell them that 30% of Americans are super obese. That’s just a rough number, i don’t really remember the precise statistic. Likewise, could it be that journalists are just really lenient about accuracy of statistics and round up or down a lot, and thus false facts are created.

    About 92% of people will believe a statement as long as it has a statistic in it.

    Did you believe that statement? I just made that statistic up!
    See, just like that, a false fact is created.

    • Don’t you think it’s wrong that journalists can ’round up/down’? Shouldn’t they have to present correct information to an audience without any knowledge on a topic? But i completely agree, It’s a chain.. one journalist rounds up, another one rounds up again and before you know theres a complete different statistic being presented!

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