ONCE upon a time, the naive conviction prevailed that whatever appeared in print simply had to be true. No such innocence applies today, to judge from the public skepticism about journalism. But a new naivete now afflicts information-seekers. The number has replaced the word as sacred, and statistics - all statistics - are regarded as scientifically true until proven otherwise.
When they first appeared, no one questioned the figures claiming that reports of domestic violence increase an astonishing 40 percent on Super Bowl Sunday. So disturbing were the statistics that at the beginning of this year's game, NBC even ran a public-service announcement about the horrors of wife-beating.
But wait. The next day, embarrassed advocacy groups admitted that those numbers weren't accurate. Most shelters for battered women reported no unusual increase in domestic violence complaints during the game. No one could even say for sure where the inflated statistic had come from. Some advocates now worry that the incident will diminish the credibility of their cause - credibility they have spent years building.
Similarly misleading statistics distort the problem of child abuse. Thanks to mandatory reporting laws and heightened public awareness, reports of suspected child abuse reached 2.7 million in 1990 - a figure that gets quoted repeatedly as the definitive statistic on child abuse.
But wait again. The actual number of new, substantiated cases is only a fraction of that total. As Douglas Besharov, who was the first director of the US National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, explained in a talk prepared for the Rockford Institute, 60 or 65 percent of all reports are dismissed as "unfounded" after investigation. That leaves 35 or 40 percent of substantiated cases - about 1 million children.
But, added Mr. Besharov, who now teaches family law at Georgetown University and the University of Maryland, since each reported family has an average of 1.9 children, the actual number of substantiated cases is 525,000. And about 20 percent of those are repeat reports, which means the unduplicated number of new substantiated cases is about 420,000 per year.
The new math of social problems appears to be: It's not enough to have statistics. They must be truly alarming statistics. The bigger and scarier the numbers, the reasoning goes, the better the chance that politicians and policy advocates will pay attention and do something.
As Besharov sees it, the problem - what he calls the "politicization of numbers" - starts with advocacy groups, whose members may be tempted to distort figures to gain support from the public and the government. It gets perpetuated by journalists, who need data and drama to catch their editors' and readers' attention. He illustrates his point by saying, "Imagine a story with the following headline: `Vast Majority of Children Not Abused.' " Readers would yawn and turn the page.
But reducing inflated numbers to a more accurate count presents a challenge: Public opinion then tends to discount the problem. If no critical need is perceived, the danger persists that no action will be taken, no money appropriated.
In the old days, nobody knew how many homeless people there were, or how many children went to bed hungry. Quantifying does serve the purpose of defining a problem. But as people begin to count everything - deaths from drunken driving, deaths from secondary smoking - they can get into a world of discussion by statistics. All the numbers begin to cancel each other out. The very thing advocates wanted - to call attention to a problem - can lead not to action but to a kind of fatalism and helplessness.
Statistics need to be treated with greater skepticism and verified like any other purported facts. And even when they prove accurate, statistics must not be allowed to dominate the public imagination by sheer size so that agendas are determined by the quantities of cases cited.
To respond to thousands of battered children or not to respond if the numbers fall too low, is to treat moral issues like a bookkeeper. The conscience, singular in its focus, doesn't keep score, yet remains the true megapower behind reform. For the conscience, on Super Bowl Sunday or any other day, one battered woman or one abused child is too many.