In the dust-up between Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and The Seattle Weekly over adult advertising and juvenile prostitution, the actual numbers really matter, writes guest columnist Alec Campbell.

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THE use, abuse and criticism of numbers is central to the conflict between Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and The Seattle Weekly over adult advertising and juvenile prostitution. In Seattle Times columnist Lynne Varner’s recent column, she provides a novel method of interpreting numbers.

In discussing a University of Pennsylvania study criticized by The Weekly, she says, “The authority in estimates of underage prostitution lies in their ability to convey the realness and horror of the problem.”

Well, no. The authority of numbers lies in their accuracy, which depends upon how they are collected, analyzed and interpreted. Inaccurate numbers that convey horror and “realness” promote fearmongering.

Which is exactly what the UP study does. Its claim that nearly 300,000 juveniles are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation in the United States is junk science and anyone citing it should be disbelieved. The central problem is that no commercially sexually exploited children were actually counted in the study. Their estimate was derived by: 1) asking social-service and law-enforcement professionals to guess at the proportion of at-risk children who are exploited, 2) somehow (the method is not explained) combining those guesses into one number, and 3) multiplying that number by a broadly defined number of at-risk children in the United States.

There are many other problems. Joel Best’s book “Damned Lies and Statistics” is required reading for anyone trying to evaluate the numbers behind political claims.

Fortunately, the city of Seattle commissioned Debra Boyer’s report “Who Pays the Price? Assessment of Youth Prostitution in Seattle.” This study beautifully exemplifies how a serous scientist interested in truth rather than “horror” deals with difficult measurement problems and produces authoritative numbers. Boyer asked social-service providers to examine their files (no guessing) for cases involving youth prostitution. She estimates there are 300-500 youth involved in prostitution in King County.

Sometimes the same data are interpreted differently. For example, last year The Weekly reported that the FBI ranked Seattle as the worst city in the U.S. for child prostitution for the third year in a row. City Councilmember Tim Burgess says, “For each of the past three years, we have led the nation in the number of children rescued from prostitution as reported by the FBI.” Apparently these are alternative interpretations of coordinated multicity FBI sweeps in which Seattle had the largest number of arrests and rescues.

Is youth prostitution particularly bad here (Weekly) or is Seattle simply doing more about it (Burgess)? Or, are these just two ways of spinning the numbers? The answer depends upon the social process that produces arrests, which varies across crimes, times and places.

For example, murder is usually reported and intensely investigated, so police statistics are reliable across time and place. Prostitution is rarely reported so police have to go looking for it — or not. When they do go looking, their attitudes and the social services available to victims will affect their success.

The Seattle Police place a relatively high priority on youth prostitution so they know where and how to look. When the FBI provides additional resources, they make the most of them. In addition, the SPD now views youth prostitutes as victims rather than criminals.

Finally, Seattle has one of the rare shelters dedicated to victims of the juvenile prostitution. In this context, a high arrest rate indicates progress. Burgess is right and the Weekly was fearmongering. We can get past the spin by thinking about how data are produced.

Finally, numerical comparisons should be explicit. Councilman Burgess and Mayor McGinn claim that The Weekly’s ads are directly related to about 20 youth prostitution cases. They want the Weekly to adopt advertising policies used by other papers. They would strengthen their case by telling us how many cases were connected to ads in papers using their preferred policies.

Alec Campbell lives in Bellevue and is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Reed College, where he teaches courses in research methods and criminology.