When Statistics Beat the Truth

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    The timing of the announcement was interesting. On the one hand, the House of Representatives had just announced plans for a major cutback in federal AIDS funds to San Francisco, in response to the city's greatly reduced number of AIDS cases over the previous several years. At the same time, given the upcoming International AIDS Conference in South Africa (convened this week), one couldn't help notice one DPH official's curious remark, repeated everywhere without comment, that "We are very concerned, and we are very worried... These are sub-Saharan African levels of transmission." (Emphasis added.)

    There was no similar wave of sensational headlines the following week, when the same DPH officials in effect recanted to Terry Beswick, of the Bay Area Reporter, a gay publication in San Francisco. In fact, we're not aware of Beswick's July 6 story, "DPH bungles on HIV infection rate projections," being picked up by any major news organization anywhere. Yet there were the DPH director and HIV officials, admitting that the figures rushed to the press the week before had been based on partial survey data and questionable math ("It's unfortunate that it got out before we were able to say as a group that this is our best estimate of the number of new infections"); that the reported number of new HIV cases thus "is not an official DPH number"; that any increase in the number of cases might well be simply a function of an overall increase in the population of gay and bisexual men in San Francisco ("Obviously the more gay men or the more people at risk in general that you have, the higher the number of new infections"); and that "The comparison to sub-Saharan Africa is unfortunate."

    No, of course you didn't read that in The New York Times, which instead has continued to report as fact figures thrown into doubt by the very agency that originally released them. (We were forwarded Beswick's story by the San Francisco chapter of ACT UP, which presumably has the wherewithal to reach someone at the Times as well. The BAR is also online.) An alarming jump in the HIV rate in San Francisco, with frightening implications for the rest of the nation and the world, makes better copy?and a better fit with the media's self-appointed role as social welfare programmers?than does a group of public health bureaucrats fudging numbers in an effort to save their budget.