August 29, 2001
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A front-page article in today's New York Time reports on trees in California. "In California, we lost about 95 percent of our wetlands and 90 percent of our forests and we've lost them one puddle and one tree at a time," the article quotes the executive director of the California Oak Foundation as saying.
According to the most recent numbers available from the U.S Forest Service, from the mid-1990s, California has 37.3 million forested acres. Of that, more than 20 million was under protection as U.S. Forest Service or other federal land. The total land area of California, meanwhile, is 99.8 million acres. So even if you assume that all 99.8 million acres were originally forest, and even if you assume that the number of forested acres has declined somewhat since the mid-1990s, it's hard to see how the claim that California has "lost" 90 percent of its forests can be taken seriously. Sure, one can distinguish between "old-growth" forest and new forest that has grown in after logging or farming or fires. But the Times doesn't make that distinction. As a result, the newspaper's readers are left with the false impression that California -- a state that has vast and beautiful state parks, national forests and national parks -- has been paved over or reduced to a field full of stumps.
Chainsaw Massacre, II: Yesterday's editions of Smartertimes.com criticized a Times editorial that called for President George W. Bush to wear more protective gear while using a chainsaw. The Times editorial claimed that "the number of chain saw users who require hospitalization annually exceeds 44,000, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission."
Smartertimes.com pointed out yesterday that "the number of Times readers who require hospitalization annually also probably exceeds 44,000, which tells you virtually nothing about how dangerous the Times is or what protective gear ought to be worn while reading it. If what the newspaper is trying to communicate is that there were 44,000 chainsaw accidents last year that required hospitalization, it should say so."
Thinking the matter over a bit yesterday afternoon, Smartertimes.com thought that that 44,000 number seemed a bit high, if what the Times really meant to count was chainsaw accidents. Indeed, the Web site for Elvex, one maker of protective safety gear for chainsaw users, reports that "According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission there were over 28,500 chain saw injuries in 1999." Well, 28,500 is a far cry from 44,000.
So Smartertimes.com did some further research and placed a phone call to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. A helpful official, Sharon B. Winston, a technical information specialist in the office of technical services at the National Injury Information Clearinghouse of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, faxed over to Smartertimes.com headquarters the "national estimate" of injuries that involved chain saws in 2000, the most recent year for which an estimate is available. The total: 26,711.
Again, 26, 711 is a far cry from 44,000.
But there's more. The "national estimate" devised by the Consumer Product Safety Commission is derived from a sample of about 100 hospital emergency rooms nationwide known as the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. Any emergency room record that mentions a chainsaw is counted in devising the injury estimate, so, Ms. Winston said, a person hurt by a falling tree after cutting the tree down with a chain saw would likely count as someone injured by a chainsaw. The 26,711 estimate is projected from an actual count of 546 hospital emergency room visits in 2000 that stemmed from injuries that involved chainsaws.
Now it gets even better. The Consumer Product Safety Commission actually breaks out the emergency room statistics by what happens to the patients, into three categories: "treated and released," "transferred," and "hospitalized." Of the chainsaw-related emergency-room visitors, 94.8 percent were treated and released, 1.6 percent were transferred, and 2.6 percent were hospitalized, according to the Year 2000 statistics Ms. Winston faxed over.
Now, it is no fun to go to the emergency room with a chainsaw-related injury, even if you just have to get stitches and go home. Whether an emergency room visit without an overnight stay counts as "hospitalization" is a semantic question. But remember, the Times used the word "hospitalization " to describe 44,000 annual injuries that it implied, however vaguely, were related to chainsaw use. And it cited as its authority the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- which, by its own statistics and definition, says that only 2.6 percent of the emergency room visits related to chain saws led to a patient being "hospitalized." 2.6 percent of the 26,711 national estimate is 694. And 694 is a far cry from 44,000.
But remember, that national estimate is an estimate based on a smaller sample of actual injuries counted in emergency rooms. Taking 2.6 percent of that actual sample of 546, the actual number of persons the Consumer Product Safety Commission knows for certain were hospitalized last year because of chainsaw injuries was about 14. And 14 is a far cry from 44,000.
Sure, there may be sampling error in these statistics. And Smartertimes.com is sorry for going on at such length and in such detail about a relatively obscure point. But the Times presents itself as the world's most authoritative newspaper, and the newspaper is constantly attacking the Bush administration for similarly obscure numerical points involving the math used in the federal budget. If the newspaper wants to be taken seriously in such debate as there is over chainsaw safety, asserting that 44,000 people annually are hospitalized from chainsaw-related injuries when the real number is closer to 26,711, to 694 or to 14 is a poor way to establish credibility.
One wonders why the newspaper would make a mistake like this. Smartertimes.com usually hesitates to speculate, but today at least one explanation leaps to mind. Perhaps it is for the sake of internal consistency. If indeed California has lost "90 percent" of its forests, as today's front-page news article claims, there must, after all, be a great many chainsaws in use -- and therefore a great many chainsaw injuries.
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