Saturday, November 28, 2015
Don't believe the hype
Despite being the safest and healthiest humans to have lived, we allow 'experts' to scare us witless, says Dan Gardner.
'Recent figures suggest some 50,000 pedophiles are prowling the internet at any one time," says the website of Innocence in Danger, a non-government organisation based in Switzerland. No source is cited for the claim, which appears under the headline "Some terryfying [sic] statistics".
It is indeed a terrifying statistic. It is also well-travelled. It has been cited in Britain, Canada, the US, and points beyond. Like a new strain of the flu, it has spread from newspaper articles to TV reports to public speakers, websites, blogs, and countless conversations of frightened parents. It even infected Alberto Gonzales, the former US attorney-general.
Unfortunately, the mere fact that a number has proliferated, even at the highest levels of officialdom, does not demonstrate the number is true.
There's one obvious reason to be at least a little suspicious. It's a round number. A very round number. It's not 47,000 or 53,500. It's 50,000. And 50,000 is just the sort of perfectly round number people pluck out of the air when they make a wild guess.
And what method aside from wild guessing could one use to come up with the number of pedophiles online? Accurate counts of ordinary internet users are tough enough. But pedophiles? Much as one may wish they were all identified and registered with the authorities, they aren't, and they aren't likely to be completely frank about their inclinations when a phone surveyor calls to ask about online sexual habits.
Another reason for caution is the way this alleged fact changes from one telling to another. Britain's Independent states there are "as many as" 50,000 pedophiles online. Other sources say there are precisely 50,000. A few claim "at least" 50,000.
There's also variation in what those pedophiles are supposed to be up to. In some stories, the pedophiles are merely "online" and the reader is left to assume they are doing something other than getting the latest headlines or paying the water bill. Others say the pedophiles are "looking for children".
In the most precise account, all 50,000 pedophiles are said to have "one goal in mind: to find a child, strike up a relationship and eventually meet with the child". This spectacular feat of mind-reading can be found on the website of Spectorsoft, a company that sells frightened parents software that monitors their children's online activities for the low cost of $US99.95 ($105).
Then there is the supposed arena in which those 50,000 pedophiles are said to be operating. In some versions, it's 50,000 around the world, or on the whole of the internet. But an American blogger narrowed that considerably: "50,000 pedophiles at any one time are on MySpace.com and other social networking sites looking for kids".
And a story in the magazine Dallas Child quotes two parent-activists - identified as "California's Parents of the Year for 2001" - who say, "The internet is a wonderful tool, but it can also be an evil one, especially sites like MySpace.com. At any one given time, 50,000 pedophiles are on the site."
All this should have our inner sceptic ringing alarm bells. But there is a final, critical question to be answered before we can dismiss this number as junk: what is its source? In most of the number's appearances, no source is cited. The author simply uses the passive voice ("It is estimated that … ") to paper over this gaping hole. Another way to achieve the same effect - one used far too often in newspapers - is to simply quote an official who states the number as fact.
The number then takes on the credibility of the official even though the reader still doesn't know the number's source. After an article in the Ottawa Citizen repeated the 50,000 pedophiles figure within a quotation from Ian Wilms, the president of the Canadian Association of Police Boards, I called Wilms and asked where he got the number. It came up in a conversation with British police, he said. And no, he couldn't be more precise.
Fortunately, there are several versions of the "50,000 pedophiles" story - including the article in The Independent - that do point to a source. They all say it comes from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. So I called the FBI. No, a spokeswoman said, that's not our number. We have no idea where it came from. And no, she said, the bureau doesn't have its own estimate of the number of pedophiles online because that's impossible to figure out.
Scepticism is rarely enough to finish off a dubious but useful number, however.
In April 2006, the then US attorney-general, Alberto Gonzales, told the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children: "It is simply astonishing how many predators there are … at any given time, 50,000 predators are on the internet prowling for children." The source of this figure, Gonzales said, was "the television program Dateline".
Gonzales should listen to National Public Radio more often. When journalists from the broadcaster asked Dateline to explain where it got this number, they were told by the show's Chris Hansen that it had interviewed an expert and asked him whether this number that "keeps surfacing" is accurate.
The expert replied, as paraphrased by Hansen: "I've heard it, but depending on how you define what is a predator, it could actually be a very low estimate." Dateline took this as confirmation the number was accurate and repeated it as unqualified fact on three different shows.
The expert Dateline spoke to was an FBI agent, Ken Lanning. When NPR asked Lanning about the magic number, he said: "I didn't know where it came from. I couldn't confirm it, but I couldn't refute it, but I felt it was a fairly reasonable figure."
Lanning also noted a curious coincidence: 50,000 has made appearances as a key number in at least two previous panics in recent years. In the early 1980s, it was supposed to be the number of children kidnapped by strangers every year. At the end of the decade, it was the number of murders committed by satanic cults. These claims, widely reported and believed at the time, were later revealed to be nothing more than hysterical guesses that became "fact" in the retelling.
Now it may be that, as Lanning thinks, the 50,000 figure is close to the reality. But it may also be way off the mark. There may be five million pedophiles on the internet at any given moment, or 500, or five. Nobody really knows. This number is, at best, a guess made by persons unknown.
To get a number that matches the sort of pedophile-in-the-shadow attacks that terrify parents, NISMART (National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children) created a category called stereotypical kidnappings: a stranger or slight acquaintance takes or detains a child overnight, transports the child more than 35 kilometres, holds the child for ransom or with the intention of keeping him or her, or kills the child. NISMART estimated that in one year the total number of stereotypical kidnappings in the US was 115. If that number is adjusted to include only children younger than 14 when they were kidnapped it is 90. To look at these statistics rationally, we have to remember that there are roughly 70 million American children. With just 115 cases of children under 18 being stolen by strangers, the risk to any one American minor is about 0.00016 per cent, or 1 in 608,696. For those 14 and under the numbers are only slightly different. There are roughly 59 million Americans aged 14 and under, so the risk is 0.00015 per cent. That's 1 in 655,555.
To put that in perspective, consider the swimming pool. In 2003, the total number of American children 14 and younger who drowned in a swimming pool was 285. Thus the chance of a child drowning in a swimming pool is 1 in 245,614 - or more than 2.5 times greater than the chance of a child being abducted by a stranger. Also in 2003, 2408 children 14 and younger were killed in car crashes. That makes the probability of such a death 1 in 29,070. Thus, a child is 26 times more likely to die in a car crash than to be abducted by a stranger.
The numbers vary from country to country, but everywhere the likelihood of a child being snatched by a stranger is almost indescribably tiny. In Britain, a Home Office report states: "There were 59 cases involving a stranger successfully abducting a child or children, resulting in 68 victims." With 11.4 million children under 16, that works out to a risk of 1 in 167,647. (Note that the British and American numbers are based on different definitions and calculation methods; they aren't directly comparable.)
In Canada, Marlene Dalley of the National Missing Children Services carefully combed police data banks for the years 2000 and 2001 and discovered the total number of cases in which a child was abducted by a "stranger" - using a definition that included "neighbour" or "friend of the father" - was five. As for abductions by true strangers, there was precisely one in two years. There are roughly 2.9 million children aged 14 or younger in Canada. Thus the annual risk to one of those children is 1 in 5.8 million.
As to how these terrible cases end, the statistics flashed briefly by CNN were almost accurate. According to NISMART's rounded numbers (hence they don't quite add up to 100 per cent), 57 per cent of children abducted by strangers in a stereotypical kidnapping were returned alive, while 40 per cent were killed. Four per cent were not found. One critical fact not mentioned in the show is that nine out of 10 stranger abductions are resolved within 24 hours.
All these numbers boil down to something quite simple. First, the overwhelming majority of minors are not abducted. Second, the overwhelming majority of minors who are abducted are not taken by strangers. Third, the overwhelming majority of minors abducted by strangers are not taken in circumstances resembling the stereotypical kidnapping that so terrifies parents. Fourth, the number of stereotypical kidnappings is so small that the chance of that happening to a child is almost indescribably tiny. And finally, in the incredibly unlikely event that a child is snatched by a lurking pedophile, there is a good chance the child will survive and return home in less than a day.
An edited extract from Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear (Scribe, $35) by Dan Gardner. Published next Saturday.