Thursday, May 21, 2015

What is the Percentage Chance?

Jennifer Fopma, a member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force recently published the following column in the Battle Creek Enquirer.  We re-post it here. Visit, "Counting Statistics is Not Always Wise," Battle Creek Enquirer, May 15, 2015 to read the original.

When my children were both in elementary school there was a tornado warning in our town.  The school sounded the alarm and the students all left their rooms and lined the halls and bathrooms, sitting on the floor with their arms over their heads.  It wasn’t a drill.  My daughter was scared.  My son was terrified.  Now, nearly seven years later, as soon as spring arrives he turns into a meteorologist.  He pays attention to the weather.  If the conditions are right, I am not greeted with a “good morning” when I go to get him up.  Instead, he asks, “What is the percentage chance of a tornado?” 

I love statistics.  They can drive home a point when I’m doing a presentation.  I especially love a really powerful and shocking one.  I will say it.  Pause for dramatic effect and then repeat it again using slightly different words to evoke even more emotion.  Did you know that lethality increases by 75% when a domestic violence victim leaves their assailant? – pause – Let me say that again because it is really important.  A woman’s chance of being murdered increases by 75% when she leaves!  Bam!  I’ve got their attention now.  The statistic is important, but I use it to support that domestic violence is an important issue that requires their attention.  All true.

But, as powerful and helpful as statistics can be to support a point, they don’t often make a point.  Nor should they.  Researchers use statistics to prove or disprove a hypothesis…not to create a hypothesis.  In fact, using inaccurate numbers – numbers that are poor or misleading – can create roadblocks and result in bad decisions and unintended consequences. 

In 2013 the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report estimated that as many as 27 million men, women and children are trafficking victims at any given time.  In 2014 this same report stated that 20 million are trafficked.  In one year the number declined by 7 million!  Wow.  We must be doing great work!  Or not.  In 2013 the Global Slavery Index estimated 29.8 million persons being trafficked.  In 2014 the GSI listed the number at 35.8.  That is an increase of 6 million people! 

The headline that sends angry chills down my spine, however, is that Michigan ranks No. 2 for human trafficking sex trade behind only Nevada.  Wrong again.  We are not number two.   How do I know this?  Because it can’t be substantiated in any way with any number.  We don’t count cases.  There is a lack of hard evidence, data and research on numbers in modern day slavery.  Human trafficking is a hidden crime so data is scarce.  Definitions vary. Some definitions require movement  - not just force, fraud, or coercion.  That makes data collection even more difficult. 

There is an old joke that anything can be proven with statistics, except the truth.  Here is the truth.  Here is what we know.  We know that trafficking is such an egregious crime that every single country in the world has made slavery illegal.  It is a violation of basic human dignity.  It needs attention.  Survivor stories will send chills down the spine of the most hardened hearts.  Something must be done.  It is happening.  It is happening here.  In the United States.  In Michigan.  In Calhoun County.  In every county.
When my son tells me that he can’t go to school because there is a 51% chance of a tornado today, I ask him what is the source of his information?  It is a fair question – and one we need to ask whenever we see statistics, especially statistics that seem to be for the purpose of grabbing headlines.  As a co-worker tells me when she goes on a “break”, cigarettes are the leading cause of statistics. 

Statistics are important.  But they should be used to increase our understanding and draw real attention to real issues that help us better understand our world and live safely in it.  Now, I better hurry up and go mow my lawn – there’s a 51% chance of rain tomorrow.

Take Action: Ask Questions.  When you read statistics in the newspaper or hear them expressed in public settings, ask for the source of the information.  Statistics can help us understand and make public policy but they also can be a barrier to understanding and appropriate policy. Try to confirm data before spreading it.

Jennifer Fopma, LMSW, is the Executive Director of S.A.F.E. Place, a multi-county domestic violence service organization.  To learn more go to and “like” us on Facebook.