Monday, March 24, 2008

The Chicago Tribune's Statisticians

I have been feeling rather solicitous towards the Chicago Tribune recently by virtue of several nice things about Senator Barack Obama that have appeared on its editorial pages. The Tribune is certainly not the conservative bastion it once was, but it still so consistently prefers Republicans that any positive thing it has to say about a Democrat can be considered high praise. However, its lead editorial today demonstrated a witlessness that makes me doubt its powers of discernment:

The headline read: Driving—or not—at 16 with the subheadline Car accidents cause 40 percent of all deaths of 16- and 17-year olds. While this seems alarming, it strikes me as akin to the California state legislator who was distressed to learn that half the students in her district were below the 50th percentile in math and reading.

The fact of the matter is that 16- and 17-year olds are unlikely to die of cancer, stroke, heart disease, Alzheimers, and a host of other natural causes that regularly afflict older people. When a teenager dies, it is overwhelmingly likely to be from some form of accident or other preventable stupidity. I see nothing surprising in the most common such occurrence being automobile accidents.

40 percent may in fact be a statistic that gives cause for concern, but it does not do so on its face. We would expect a significant increase in the death rate from auto accidents between the ages of 15 and 16 simply because that is when teenagers start driving and they are in cars more. Without examining whether the decline in the rate between the ages of 17 and say 25 is greater than would be expected by the natural susceptibility to other afflictions that comes with aging, it would be foolish to say that increasing the driving age is going to accomplish much other than requiring teenagers to be ferried around by their parents more.

I don’t wish to make light of the death of teenagers in any way whatsoever, but teenagers have a greater likelihood of dying in car accidents than octogenarians just as octogenarians have a greater likelihood of dying from the diseases of old age. Standing alone, the statistic is not one that dictates any specific course of action and the Tribune should be embarrassed to trumpet it in the way that it does.


  1. Hi Vinnie, I enjoy the blog. I was wondering if you might take a look at something I found and perhaps share your thoughts.
    -An article about the real meaning of 'Euro-American'.

    This isn't really precisely your blog's subject area, but I liked your writings on Barack Obama's speech on race in America, and this piece of writing might interest you.


  2. Thanks for stopping by.

    I don't recall noticing the use of "Euro-American" although I don't know whether it would have made much impression on me. I will have to keep my eyes open for it.