Call it fuzzy math, my money says it's still those crazy kids


WASHINGTON -- I had an editor once who said that I added by subtraction. Or was it subtracted by adding. I forget.

That said, I have to deal with a lot of numbers. Mostly poll numbers of one sort or another. Who's up? Who's down? What's good for the economy? What's bad?

It sounds like an Abbott and Costello routine. Turns out I'm not the only one who finds them troublesome. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics," or maybe it was Mark Twain. Even the attribution is confusing.

Perhaps the more fitting quote goes something like: "Statistics are like a bikini: What they reveal is suggestive but what they conceal is vital." I couldn't find any attribution for that one.

While I number myself among the arithmetically challenged, I am not alone. This week, the MPAA apologized for using the wrong number to prove to lawmakers that campus piracy is out of control. On Wednesday, the MPAA had to admit that 15% of the industry's domestic losses come from college students, not the 44% it had been telling lawmakers and educators.

MPAA officials blamed the discrepancy on a "computational" error by the consulting firm LEK, which it hired to do the survey in 2005. The company discovered the problem as it was doing the 2007 survey.

Check my math on this, but that's something like a 65% difference. That's not a bikini. It's a pair of bloomers.

I'm told that MPAA chief Dan Glickman called lawmakers all over Capitol Hill to apologize for the error. That kind of damage control helps on one level but it does nothing on another. In the battle for public opinion, the gaffe plays right into the anti-copyrightists' hands. As I wrote the news story on Wednesday, I could almost feel them wringing their hands with glee and almost hear them doing that mad-scientist laugh.

It may or may not come as a shock to Hollywood, but most of the public thinks the copyright holders are a bunch of liars to begin with. This latest revelation does much to bolster that perception.

Gigi Sohn, president of the fair-use advocacy group Public Knowledge, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon: "(The MPAA) owes the public an apology for trying to make its case for filtering the Internet and other Draconian measures on the basis of faulty information, faulty business models and a failure to adapt to changing times," she said.

It'll only get worse. With a mistake of that magnitude concerning the 2005 data, how can anyone take the MPAA's 2007 study seriously? The trade association has said that it hired a second firm to ensure that the first firm didn't play fast and loose with the data. If we can't trust the first, why should we believe anything the second firm says?

As one of the arithmetically challenged by nature and a cynic by training, I never really believe the numbers that groups like the MPAA and Public Knowledge spout. Still, I have no doubt that piracy is a problem.

While I have little doubt that some of my middle-age brethren are downloading movies, they probably don't make up the vast majority. Whether the number is 15 or 15 gazillion, the downloading is being done by college-age or near-college-age kids. They may be high school kids. But if Scooby-Doo has taught us anything, it's that it is still those darn kids.

They may not be on campus. They may be at home or at a friend's house. Or, they may be like me and go through college on the sofa circuit, but they're the ones who are making the Internet as vital as, well, a bikini at the beach.