12 million kids are being held hostage by a psychiatric disorder

Ad campaign pic for 12 million warped kidssource: New York Times

My God! 12 million! Something must be done!

This bulletin board appears at various places in New York City (as reported in the New York Times). It is sponsored by the New York University Child Study Center. It’s purpose is to—wait for itraise awareness! (Of autism and other maladies that afflict the young.)

But the only thing that I was made aware of, is that this number almost certainly cannot be true. And that this ad is yet another example of a group nobly, but wildly, exaggerating a claim in order to make a point. The inherent dishonesty in this practice is ignored or explained away because the topic is so awful. This isn’t the place to talk about it, but if the lesson of Chicken Little or the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf have taught us anything, it is that exaggeration ultimately undermines its very purpose. When people discover the original claim is false, they tend to discount whatever else the claimant might say.

Anyway, how do I know that there can’t be 12 million kids with psychiatric disorders? Let’s figure it out together.

How many people live in the United States? According to the Census Bureau, a little over 300 million. And how many of these people are “kids”? Well, what’s a “kid”? Somebody under 12? Under 18? We can’t be sure what the advertisement actually implies, but let’s suppose, say, 14 (which I chose because that’s a break-point in the Census Bureau tables; but it makes little difference to my conclusion).

About 21% of all people, then, are kids. Which is about 63 million. And if 12 million kids are being “held hostage”, that means 1 out of every 5 kids must have some sort of ransom (in the form of prescriptions?) paid for them.

To put that number into perspective, if we were to walk into a typical school classroom with 30 kids, then there is a 50% chance that we would see 6 or more of these kids currently being “held hostage”!

I need hardly tell you that that number is not consonant with our experience. That is to say, that the original “12 million” estimate, is almost certainly false. And probably by an order of magnitude, too: which is a fancy way of saying we should divide the 12 million by 10 or so. That makes a 50% chance that we see one kid held hostage per room. And that number is more realistic.

So this ad gets a 5 on the Briggs Statistical Deception Scale. Of course, the original 12 million number could be right if we are allowed to, as unfortunately is increasingly the case, define “normal” behavior narrower and narrower, with even slight deviations from the accepted norm being declared due to newly discovered (or expanded in scope) “disorders” and “syndromes.”

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