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Bogus Numbers, but a Legitimate Point

February 9, 2010

Trolling the blogosphere this morning, I came across an Andrew Sullivan post featuring the following poster:

Were this statistic true, it would be a great boon to health care reform advocates such as myself. No sense in allocating $708 billion in the 2011 budget for defense spending, I would be inclined to argue, when lack of health insurance poses a threat to the population dramatically greater than that of terrorism.

Unfortunately, however, the 58-to-1 number is factually inaccurate. From the footnotes at the bottom of the image (in fine print of course), we learn that the statistic was obtained by pairing two sources: a Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance study linking 45,000 deaths annually to lack of health coverage, and a US Department of State statistic attributing 774.7 deaths annually to global terrorism. The first statistic, it turns out, is correct. Yet, averaging the Department of State numbers for “people worldwide killed as a result of terrorism” between 2005 and 2008, I come up with a much larger number: 18,325.25. Taking the first number and dividing it by the second, I then come up with 2.45 health care related deaths in the US per every person killed as a result of worldwide terrorism. Which is considerably fewer than the 58 deaths cited in the poster.

The revised number is nevertheless significant, given that it compares US apples to worldwide oranges and still manages to discover more apples than oranges. Moreover, if we compare apples to apples, there are 45,000 annual deaths in the US due to lack of health care, and not a single fatality due to a terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11. (The State Department tells us that 75% of the 235 high-casuality terrorist attacks in 2008 occurred in the Near East and South Asia.) Surely, Dick Cheney would argue that the US has George Bush to thank for this absence of post-9/11 terrorist attacks. Yet the Iraq War seems to have inspired, rather than quelled, Islamic extremism — that, at least, is what a declassified government intelligence report claimed in 2006.

There is, in short, still very good reason to invest more US dollars on health care and fewer dollars on defense spending. The “Invade a Hospital” poster is a bizarre breed of propaganda: using bogus numbers, it makes a legitimate point.

Update: I have responded to Jake Lewis, and discussed the Department of State numbers at much greater length here.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2010 8:46 pm

    Originally I wanted to compare the number of deaths in the US caused by terrorism (not zero as stated above; there were been between ten and twenty in 2009 alone). The ratio between 45,000 and 20 was so high it looked meaningless, which is why I used the 774.7 figure in the graphic.

    The figure is taken from nydemocracyproject.org, who in turn got their data from ‘Patterns of Global Terrorism 1985-2005: U.S. Department of State Reports with Supplementary Documents and Statistics’ by Berkshire Publishing.

    The reason for the disparity is due to a change in the way terrorism is defined by the US State Department, (and of course ‘terrorism’ is a word that can be defined in any number of ways, which of course says something in itself).

    So the numbers aren’t actually bogus.

  2. Innocent Smith permalink*
    February 20, 2010 10:37 am

    Jake, thanks for the reply. I am glad to hear that you did not intentionally fabricate the numbers.

    Still, I am not sure how to account for the difference between your number for 1985-2005 (774.7) and my number for 2005-2008 (18325.25). That is a staggering 17,550.85 deaths per year more beginning in 2005. The shift is so great as to make both numbers seem arbitrary. I realize that the State Department may have redefined ‘terrorism,’ but that doesn’t so much resolve the disparity as underscore it.

    I am tempted to conclude that either your source (nydemocracyproject.org) is incorrect, or there is something fishy going on at the State Department. A third alternative, that there has been an exponential increase in terrorism since 2005, seems unlikely but is also, I suppose, possible.

    I will look into this.

  3. February 26, 2010 2:47 am

    If in 2005 the Bush administration changed the definition of ‘terrorism’ to make the numbers 24x higher then they were, I don’t see anything bogus about Jake using numbers from 2004.

  4. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    February 26, 2010 9:09 am

    Lindsey,

    I hope you’ve had the chance to read my follow-up post, “Exaggerating the Global Terrorism Threat: 2005-2008,” in which I examine a report published in 2007 by the Human Security Report Project. The report argues that revising the definition of terrorism to include the “intentional killing of civilians in civil wars” (as the State Department report did in 2005) has the effect of “greatly inflating the global terrorism toll” (p. 9).

    The more I looked into this, the more forgiving I became of Jake. I’m still not sure it’s fair to rely on obsolete numbers, however.

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  1. Exaggerating the Global Terrorism Threat: 2005-2008 « The Innocent Smith Journal

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