Inaccurate statistics make for great writing prompts

“Last year in the US alone more than nine hundred thousand people were reported missing and not found…out of about three hundred million, total population. That breaks down to about one person in three hundred and twenty-five vanishing. Every year…Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s almost the same loss ratio experienced by herd animals on the African savannah to large predators.”

— Harry Dresden in Dead Beat by Jim Butcher, published in 2005.

“Actually, no, Harry,” I retort, rather disdainfully. “That loss ratio on the African savannah number is probably at least an order of magnitude higher than 0.3%. Maybe even more.* However,” I add in a softer tone, “I completely understand what you’re getting at.”

— Me…had I actually been there. ***sighs wistfully***

*No sources cited, don’t have to, na na na boo boo. I have a Masters of Science in Applied Ecology, so there!

It turns out that there are a number of other folks on the interwebs world who have already commented on this highly provocative quote and thought it “sounded correct.” One or two people actually did a little research on the statistic and did not agree.

***Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that Dead Beat is a novel, i.e. a work of fiction. Facts can appear to be grossly distorted because this story takes place in a different, albeit very similar, universe to our own. The big hint is that magic exists and there is any number of supernatural entities gadding about causing trouble for our wizardly hero, Harry Dresden, and generally raising Cain. Suspension of disbelief is essential, people!***

Obviously, Dresden’s example is a bit melodramatic – not to mention grossly inaccurate – but Harry is trying to clue in Waldo Butters to the dangers of the supernatural world. He uses the disturbing statistic trope to explain to Butters why the majority of people who have a close call might choose to rationalize events, deny whatever happened, and simply pretend the supernatural world doesn’t exist instead of going public about it. This conversation takes place shortly after the zombie attack in the morgue. Zombies, ick. What a horrible introduction to the things that go bump in the night. Personally, I think I’d rather deal with werewolves than zombie-wielding necromancers. Werewolves are way cooler, for one thing. At least, the Alphas version of the werewolf in the Dresden Files Universe is pretty awesome. Who wouldn’t want to be able to autonomously turn into a wolf while retaining human-level reasoning ability? Heck, yeah! Count me in.

Anyway, out of curiosity I just went online and did a search for the number of people reported missing annually in the USA. First, I found a transcript for a 2013 NPR broadcast entitled “The Majority of Missing Person Cases are Resolved,” in which they interviewed the director of communications for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. He claims that in 2012, there were 661,000 cases reported for missing people, but the vast majority of these were quickly canceled, leaving them with 2,079 unresolved missing person cases (3.145%).

And then I did a little more digging. The actual number of missing person cases filed in the US was 830,325 in 2004 according to the NCIC. I don’t know if this statistic represents missing person reports that are new starting in that year or is a cumulative total of open cases at the time. Probably the latter, but the website doesn’t specify unless you pay for the privilege of knowing. Therefore, Harry was definitely exaggerating the number by incorrectly rounding up but don’t be too hard on him. Most people who aren’t mathematically challenged would have done the same to make their point. As you know, 85% of statistics are made up on the spot.

In any event, if the proportion of reported cases to actual unresolved cases remains more or less constant year to year, that means that there were about 28,800 unresolved missing persons cases “last year” in the Dresden Files Universe. Yikes. Of course, this number is not taking into account the resolved cases where missing people are actually found dead. These folks MIGHT have been killed by supernatural predators.

Hmm…what if supernatural predators really DO exist?

Double yikes.

Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

Spot on, Billy Bard. Spot on.

All ghostly gibbering aside, how can anyone NOT love Shakespeare?