The term “food insecurity” has been around for awhile and is one of those squish phrases like “climate instability.” Jim Bovard did an excellent piece on it, but then suggested I should post one of my replies into my own blog. So here, regarding food insecurity and statistics:
My grandmother developed a taste for tabloids like The National Enquirer (“Best reporting on the planet,” says Mr. Jones) and it was always fun to go through the articles and look for The Nugget. The Nugget was the sentence, sometimes two, containing the factoid around which the story was developed – like the grain of sand in a pearl. For instance, there was a story captioned “Musket Ball In Baby’s Chest Proves Reincarnation,” Buried about 2/3rds of the way through the breathless story was the admission that “infants are occasionally born with roundish calcium deposits in their bodies.” If I recall correctly, such deposits were either harmless or routinely removed.
Likewise government “statistics.” Or any statistics for that matter. The methodology by which they’re gathered, the questions asked, the *way* those questions are asked, and the compilation and presentation of the results – not to mention the interpretation (or spin) placed on them all go into the overall scheme of things. Much like The Nugget, the raw data is frequently there, even if the raw data is nothing more than “crap methodology yields crap results.”
Any survey that uses self-reporting is inherently suspect. Not necessarily inaccurate or wrong, but suspect. Following Joe Snuffy around to observe what he buys, weighing his portions, and tallying every bit of caloric intake will give you a far better idea of what Joe Snuffy’s food consumption is, rather than a phone call asking “whadja have for dinner last night?”
Then, of course, there’s the interpretation. If the Great And Awesome Benevolent Food Program gives me and Jim $100 for food for a month, and I spend my $100 on fine chocolate to go with my bourbon, while Jim carefully purchases beans, rice, eggs, second-hand meat, and day old fruits to keep him well fed, my food insecurity (heck, out and out hunger) on day two is not a fault of the program, nor is the “solution” to give me more money to spend on food. But that’s the default for the “we need more money for the poor people” crew. The, as I think Walter Williams may have described them, “poverty pimps.”
In short – dotgov statistics *can* be useful, so long as you know their background. But never forget that statistics is a decidedly prostitutional science. It’s willing to do pretty much anything for anybody, so long as the price is right…