Currently Reading #1: Glitz; and a Rant About Statistics


I have a friend who’s only recommended Elmore Leonard to me…six or seven times?  So when I saw this well-worn paperback at a local thrift shop, it came home with me.

Crime novels aren’t really my thing, but I’m giving this an honest chance because I’m trying to read more widely, genre-wise.  I’m about a third of the way through, and I do have to admire Leonard’s economy of prose.

However, that’s not really what I want to talk about today.  So, this is an old edition, obviously, judging by its condition.  The print date is March 1986–which means the paperback price is a mere $3.95, I wish books were still that cheap–and the back pages are stuffed with mail-order coupons for other books, which I find amusing to remember.  I never used one myself, though I did order books from the book fair in elementary school, which labelled me a giant dork but I never cared.

What I didn’t find as amusing was the alarmist ad on the final page.


I want to be clear, I am not mocking the fight against illiteracy, far from it.  But “…by the year 2000, U.S. News and World Report envisions an America with a literacy rate of only 30%” is Such. Utter. Bullshit.

Maybe it’s my background in the sciences, with its attendant grounding in statistics, that makes this piss me off so much.  And maybe the fact that I know this didn’t happen (more on that in a second) that makes it seem so ludicrous.

puts on my science hat

But first of all, “envisions”?  I can “envision” anything I want, that doesn’t mean the numbers will back it up.  Weak, misleading, alarmist.

Second, no sources quoted for the numbers they do provide.  The best representative data I could find with five minutes of Googling was the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), a study comparing reading comprehension across three categories (prose, document, and quantitative) in American adults, performed in 1992 and again in 2003.  While this ad was printed in 1986, before NAAL happened, for demonstration purposes it’s close enough.

So, what did NAAL find in 1992?  Fourteen percent of American adults scored in the “Below Basic” level–functionally illiterate–for the Prose and Document categories, and 26 percent for Quantitative.  None of those are the 1-in-3, or 33%, “quoted” in the ad.

And when the assessment was performed again in 2003, three years after the US was doomed to be 70% illiterate?  Fourteen, twelve, and twenty-two percent “Below Basic” in the same categories–unchanged for Prose, slightly (but not significantly) lower for Document, and significantly lower for Quantitative.  And yes, statistical significance is key–it means the difference is greater than could be accounted for by inherent error in the sampling process.

So from 1992 to 2003, the US, as a nation, got less illiterate, the precise opposite of what this ad predicted.  Not by leaps and bounds, and yes, the newer data is still twelve years old, so I’d be interested to see where we stand now.

But we got smarter, not stupider.

The take-home message from this is not “Look at that woman fuming pointlessly over a thirty-year-old Literacy Council ad”; the point I’m trying to make is don’t fall for misleading projectionist nonsense that claims the sky is falling but can’t give you the data to back it up.

Check the sources.


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