Kevin at Truck and Barter has a great article where he fact checks a statistic he found in a "non-fiction" book. And what do you know, it was not only wrong, but way off. And, to make matters worse, changing the statistic to its correct value undermines much of the premise of the book:
What an utter refusal to check sources and validate simple statistics!
THIS IS NOT MY JOB, nor the job of any of Ms. Robbins' readers. It's
the job of the author and editors. I don't know if I should even bother
continuing to read the book at all, as I've spent 1/2 hour tracking
down just one horrendously wrong data point. How many more will be this
My hypothesis is that this happens all the time, especially in media reports about various social ills. We have all suspected that if you add up all the people in articles that suffer from X or Y, it would include everyone in the country, probably three times over. Part of this is the very poor scientific and statistical background of most writers and editors. However, I think it also is a problem of skepticism. Editors and reporters don't necessarily have the time to fact-check everything, so they do a kind of triage using their own personal skepticism as a guide. And I think most reporters and editors are more than willing to believe that nearly every social ill discussed -- homelessness, teen suicide, drug abuse, hunger, etc. etc. -- are prevalent and getting worse, so they seldom really push back on relevant numbers for these issues. Most publishers and media outlets have pushed hard for diversity of skin color, but these groups remain pretty uniform in their outlook and basic assumptions about society, and so their failures of skepticism are pretty predictable.