Monday, April 10, 2006

Credit Card Scam #2

I got another call trying to sell me a dubious "protection service" for my credit card. This one was from 'Jose Roberts,' and involved protection against identity theft: for a mere $7.99 a month they would monitor my credit card activity for anything suspicious. Great.

As soon as Jose Roberts started "confirming my address" I told him I was not interested. He said, "Are you aware, Mr. Anymore, that over ten million Americans each year are victims of identity fraud, and that over 85% of them get arrested for crimes they did not commit?"

Those are frightening statistics indeed. They frighten me because if these statistics are part of Jose Roberts's script, it means that people must find them plausible. And that's frightening. I suppose ten million victims of identity theft is slightly plausible, if you define identity theft broadly enough to include any identity-related fraud. But the amazing one is that "85% of them get arrested for crimes they did not commit." So eight and a half million Americans are falsely arrested each year because of identity theft? Who could believe that? Now, I never complain about split infinitives, and I'm fine with sentences that end in prepositions and oblique subject pronouns in coordinated noun phrases. Hell, I don't even care about double negatives in speech. In short, I'm not a language curmudgeon, but that's because I know that all these supposed examples of ignorance are actually natural parts of the language. But having such a poor sense of proportion that you could believe that three percent of Americans are falsely arrested annually because of identity theft - that is genuine ignorance.

If I were involved in planning math curricula for grade schools, I would emphasize developing a sense of proportion and scale. That's way more useful than long division. Of course, I have no idea how to actually teach this skill, or if it can be taught, but hey, I'm being cranky here, and one of the perks of being a crank is that you can suggest simple solutions to complicated problems. Like this:

Poverty? More money!
Hunger? More food!
War? Stop fighting?
Cancer? A pill that gets rid of the cancer. Or maybe an ointment.

Things'd be a lot simpler of I were in charge.


V Smoothe said...

I have no clue how to teach people to exercise a modicum of critical thinking when presented with new information, but I think that's more the problem than a poor sense of proportion. If they thought at all, most people would realize those numbers are off. The problem is that they just don't stop to think about anything.

I read an article in the SF Chronicle a few weeks ago about how evil MySpace is or whatever, and at the very beginning of the article, the author wrote that over 200 million American teenagers use MySpace daily. How did that get past an editor?

Happy belated anniversary, by the way.

Ben said...

I think you're absolutely right, though ultimately I don't blame people for not wanting to think critically. I avoid it myself - makes me sleepy.

As for the "200 million American teenagers use Myspace daily" statistic, what's unforgivable about it is not that it suggests that two-thirds of Americans (at least) are teenagers; I think a case that could be made that everyone who experienced adolescence from the 1950s on remained in a state of unending teenageness. No, the real problem with the Myspace statistic is that it's very easy to find out that there are only 70 million Myspace users.

Anonymous said...

I want to stop being one of the rubes who lack the critical thinking skills to know when statistics are improbable, but I don't know where to start when it comes to aquiring the neccessary basic grasp of, say, human populations. At this point, I know that there are over 6 billion people on earth. That's basically the extent of my knowledge about population - otherwise I'm almost like someone with Williams' Syndrome when it comes to human population statistics. What would you say are the top 10 figures one should keep track of in order to improve one's sense of scale & proportion?

Ben said...

I'd say the most important thing is that you get statistics you can relate to each other, so that they aren't floating around in the void. So for population you could remember that, in addition to there being 6 billion people, India and China each have about a billion people. So each one is about a sixth of the world's population. Then you could remember that the United States has about 300 million people, so that's a third the population of China or India, and about 1/20 of the world's population (which is %5). Now you have some reference points so that when you hear Nigeria has 130 million citizens you realize that's almost half the population of the U.S., which is pretty amazing.

We can talk about this more when you get home from work.

Anonymous said...

Douglas Hofstadter has an excellent article on the spreading scourge of 'innumeracy', and simple, practical suggestions on how to teach the skills required to combat it.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog ! This is my first time reading it.So i had to comment. Keep up the good work.Oh and as a fellow myspacer, check out

Anonymous said...

obviously hes lying cuz if he said tht 85% r proven wrong...they cnt cuz they do dna tests...sooo hes stupid.
they wud test it and he wud different dna. enless the framer came up as the framed buut the framed had differ dna as the framer they wud most likely believe the framed

if tht makes sense 2 u