The Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) compiled this list of the most misleading data reported in the past decade.
The 1990s saw the public bombarded with scientific and statistical information like never before. Much of the knowledge stuck, but not all of it proved up to scratch.
1. Cold Fusion Confusion: On March 23, 1989, two University of Utah scientists appeared on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour to announced the achievement of fusion on their laboratory tabletop. Dubbed star in a jar, the breakthrough offered boundless cheap energy, and Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann became immediate media stars. The dimming set in soon thereafter. A decade later their results have never been replicated.
2. Martian Invasion: Everybody knows about the Mars rock found in Antarctica in August 1996 and its hidden secret life on another planet! Newsweek proclaimed This is the biggest thing thats ever happened, while Time wondered, Why does life exist at all?...did an all-powerful God set in motion an unfathomable process...? But years later, Science magazine (Nov. 20 1998) re-evaluated the evidence, concluding most researchers agree that the case for life is shakier than ever.
3. Anorexia - Worse than Accidents, Suicide and Murder Combined: Anorexia claims the lives of 150,000 women a year, according to frequently-cited texts like Gloria Steinems Revolution From Within and Al Gore adviser Naomi Wolfs The Beauty Myth (both 1992) and a column from Ann Landers (Apr. 29 1992, Boston Globe). But the figure is a misinterpretation of a study finding 150,000 cases a year, almost none of them fatal.
4. Never Mind the Viagra: With the July 1996 publication of Our Stolen Future, the sperm counts falling became a common refrain (Whats Wrong With Our Sperm? Time; In a world ever more overpopulated and polluted by humans, is nature somehow trying to shut men down? Esquire). However, as a devastating critique in the journal Fertility and Sterility (Mar. 1997) demonstrated, the sperm decline thesis was based on faulty methodology.
5. A Lot of Lolitas: Mothers lamented that girls are maturing faster than ever, fueled by the medias faulty reading of an April 1997 study finding that the mean age of onset of menses occurs at 12.2 years for African American girls and 12.9 years for white girls (Girls Facing the Perils of Puberty Earlier, Hartford Courant; Puberty Find Could Point to Danger,Pittsburgh Post Gazette). The scientific conclusion? The current norms for onset of puberty, based on British girls in the 1950s, were out of date.
6. Vietnam Vets Say: US Worse Than Any Rice Paddy: Folklore has it that as many as 160,000 veterans have committed suicide since returning from the Vietnam War. But it would have taken roughly 15 vet suicides a day over the last 30 years for the figure to be true. Veteran Michael Kelly (Washington Post, Aug. 15 1999) concluded that the correct number would be approximately 3,750 suicides (out of approximately 3.1 million Americans who served in Southeast Asia) as of 1999.
7. Where are All the Missing Children? In 1994, John Walsh, host of Americas Most Wanted, testified before Congress that more than 1.5 million children are abducted annually. But this number seriously misinterprets the 1990 study from which it is taken. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Diana Griego and Louis Kilzer found that 95 percent of missing children are runaways (most of whom soon return home) and most abductions relate to child custody disputes.
8. Abuzz with Power Fields? First brought to national attention by a June 1989 series in The New Yorker, the alleged link between cancer and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by power lines keeps on buzzing, despite a study from the National Academy of Sciences (1996) which found no conclusive or consistent evidence and one from the National Cancer Institute (1997) which also uncovered no evidence of increased health risk from EMF exposure.