LONDON — There are three kinds of lies, goes the old saying popularized by Mark Twain: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” That’s been on my mind this month as I’ve watched a big scandal over aid workers’ sexual misconduct unfolding in the British press.
It began with an exposé by The Times of London alleging that staff members from the charity Oxfam had paid earthquake survivors in Haiti for sex. But the most attention-grabbing headline in the expanding scandal came from The Sun, which blared that a “bombshell U.N. dossier” found that United Nations aid workers had raped 60,000 people.
That is a horrifying number. It is an attention-grabbing number. It is also more or less a made-up number.
And it’s got me thinking about which stories get believed, how numbers can become a stand-in for rigor and objectivity, and how that can be a problem.