The misuse and abuse of statistics has been the subject of several rants around here lately, but until today, I never realized that most had something in common: the “Goldilocks” number.

According to a segment from the current edition of On The Media (a weekly must-hear podcast), the “Goldilocks” number – not too low, not too unrealistic, but just right – is 50,000.

An all-purpose value that seems to get stuck in the statistical mythology.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Add to that the mysterious allure of 50,000, applied to mayhem ranging from Korean War casualties to the annual death toll from second-hand smoke. I tossed it to former journalism prof, Steve Ross. If I were to throw that number out to you as if it were a “Jeopardy” answer, what might you guess the question would be?

STEVE ROSS: How many traffic deaths are there in the United States every year?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How about how many people are killed a year because of satanic human sacrifice?

STEVE ROSS: I would doubt that it is very many. [LAUGHTER] But I’ve heard 50,000. [LAUGHTER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The FBI’s Fanning says there may well be 50,000 sexual predators trawling the net. He doesn’t know. He does know that 50,000 is the Goldilocks of crime stats. But, as experience shows, that doesn’t mean it’s just right.

One more reason to question the numbers in any political report. Especially if it’s 50,000.

statistics, 50000