Data points: distant compounds 8/2/10

The story “Prime Number” on NPR’s On the Media July 30:

Numbers justify fear. 50,000 abducted children, for example, or 50,000 predators prowling for kids online. That last figure was once touted by the NBC show “Dateline.” But where did it come from? As this piece from 2006 [mp3 on the site] points out, 50,000 is something of a Goldilocks number in the media – not too big and not too small, but, for scaring the public, just right. (link)

(Hat tip to Elaine Meyer in the August 1 e-mail newsletter University South News (Palo Alto CA).)

The point I picked up on is the N + N compound Goldilocks number (which doesn’t seem to have come up here, on Language Log, or on ADS-L) — a “distant compound” (see discussion of hurricane money here in January): to understand the relationship between the second N (the head) and the first (the modifier), you just have to know the story (in this case, the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears); otherwise, the compound is inscrutable.

Another 2006 report on the Goldilocks number 50,000, from Daniel Radosh, “Somebody’s been sleeping in my bed”, 5/22/06, on his blog:

As an anti- fan of dramatic, totally  unverifiable numbers in news stories (e.g., $20B$10B,$1B$134,121), I was delighted by this Legal Times article … on Alberto Gonzales’s recent claim that “at any given time, 50,000 predators are on the Internet prowling for children.”

But where did that figure come from? Spokespersons for the FBI, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire say it’s not based on any research they’re aware of. The AG’s press secretary has the answer, though: “That number is actually pulled from [NBC newsmagazine] Dateline and other media outlets.”

LT the points out that Dateline sources the figure only as a “number that was widely used in law enforcement circles.” And now that the attorney general himself has used it, that’s even more true!

Back to 2010 and a related On the Media story, about media numbers in general, also from July 30:

“Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts”

Numbers we encounter in the media are often, to say the least, untrustworthy. Some, like casualty figures in Darfur, may be deflated, some, like the street value of drugs, may be inflated, and still others are simply pulled by institutions out of thin air. Brown University professor Peter Andreas, co-editor of Sex, Drugs and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict, says that numbers are even chosen because of how they’ll sound on the news.

2 Responses to “Data points: distant compounds 8/2/10”

  1. Data points: distant compounds 8/3/10 « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Eight-digit figure/number is probably to be classified as an ordinary (Type O) N+N compound, in which the semantic relationship between the second (head) N and the first (modifier) N is one from a small set of conventionalized relationships (composition, in this case), so that the compound is (relatively) easily interpreted; see the brief discussion of Goldilocks number here. […]

  2. Stilgherrian Says:

    Australian Irene Graham, who has meticulously documented the history of censorship here, explored a related theme in her article Statistics Laundering: false and fantastic figures about the prevalence of ‘child pornography’ material on Web sites etc. Numbers simply get made up, then through her delightfully-named process of “statistics laundering” end up becoming truthy factoids.

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