Zombie stats and ghost papers

It seems fitting to tell a little scary story as Halloween approaches.

They’re called zombie statistics – figures that should be dead and buried because they have no substance but they keep coming back to life.

Most of them don’t matter and are merely symptoms of everyone’s desire to believe in powerful myths.

But every so often there are zombie stats that are used to endorse serious messages and that’s just not right.

I came across one when trawling for data about helmets. The statistics page of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute cited figures published in a Children’s Safety Network pamphlet along with a link to download it.

One stood out. It said that “Head injuries accounted for 62.6 percent of bicycle fatalities” among children and youth age 0 to 19 in 2000 in the US.Zombie statistic in Children's Safety Network leaflet of 2008

It was clear, unequivocal and shocking.

I downloaded the pamphlet but was frustrated because it showed the statistic came from an unpublished paper.

Is this a real paper or a ghost?

So I contacted the author of the “unpublished paper”, Eduard Zaloshnja.

Eduard replied promptly and disarmingly honestly – sayng that no such paper existed, only a set of data he’d produced for the Children’s Safety Network.

So I asked for a copy of the data set but Eduard had lost it some years before when his hard drive crashed. Hmm, the origins of the startling figure showing the awful truth about head injuries killing a nation’s young cyclists was proving elusive.

Of course, it was reasonable to assume that the Children’s Safety Network, whch had commssioned Eduard’s research, would have a back-up of his data so I asked for a copy.

Two weeks passed.

Then the Library Assistant in the Network’s Education Development Center wrote to say they didn’t have a copy “since the paper is not yet published” and she apologised for the inconvenience.

Within two more weeks the Children’s Safety Network published a new, expanded, brochure and you can still download it here if you’re quick. The zombie statistic seemed to have been vanquished – at least, it doesn’t make an appearance.

Yet, eerily, the new pamphlet still contains a reference to Eduard’s unpublished paper, even though he says he never wrote such a paper and created only data which, unfortunately, disappeared several years ago when his computer crashed. How strange.

I guess the repeated reference to Eduard’s ghost paper might simply be a proof-reader’s error. More worrying, though, is the continued publishing of the zombie statistic on the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute’s page.

They were told more than a year ago that, as neither Eduard nor the Children’s Safety Network could confirm the frightening data, it would be sensible to remove it from their Statistics page.

Spookily, it’s still there and it’s still a little scary – not because it’s true but because it can’t be substantiated. I hope it goes away soon.

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