Sunday, January 6, 2008

Submitting to the Court

In a recent conversation, I said something to the effect of "Missouri is the meth capital of the country." Ben—being a diligent skeptic with the beard recently voted "most huggable"—called me on it. Rightfully so, I might add. Many times I have heard phrases of the form LOCATION X is the ACTIVITY A capital of LOCATION Y.

Of course, I promised a source. Herein I deliver—to the best of my ability.

I was able to track down a possible source of my memory of a statistic of this nature. This article was published in the student newspaper of my alma mater during my matriculation there, so it's certainly possible that I read it. I do remember reading something with a bar chart, but maybe they don't put those in the online editions.

Sadly, this article is low on citations—zero, in fact—and quotes a politician, not the best source in any case. So to back up my claim, it does nothing. It does, however, explain why that nugget is in my head.

The problem now is that I can't find any one source that's a silver bullet. I can find sources backing up my claims that Missouri does lead or has once lead the nation in some methamphetamine-related statistic or other, but they're poorly cited if at all. Or I can find sources giving numbers for each state individually, but not as an aggregate and not with any sort of convenient ranking. I'll give the best information I could get, but it's not authoritative. I guess we'll have to accept what we have.

For four years in a row Missouri had the highest number of meth lab seizures of any state in the nation. It's not necessarily the best metric we can find for that sort of thing, but it's what I can find. That statistic was repeated many places, but the best one is probably this mention from PBS's FRONTLINE, saying "For the past four years, the state has recorded the highest number of clandestine lab seizures in the nation." The page was created in 2006, but the statistics they use are of activity in 2004, so I'd say those "four years" are 2000-2004. For instance, the page says, "In 2004, 2,788 labs were seized by DEA, state and local authorities..."

The reason I think the FRONTLINE page is a credible source is that they give a citation. "Sources: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration state factsheets, the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Episode Date Set, and the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws." Checking out the DEA factsheet reporting statistics on 2004, we find the same number claimed earlier: "Meth Lab Incidents: 2,788 (DEA, state, and local)."

The reason I don't think the FRONTLINE page is a wonderful source is that, to verify all their claims, I'd have to dig through years of these DEA factsheets on multiple states. They don't present one nation-encompassing graph of where these numbers are highest, so unless I want to create such a thing myself—and I do not—I'll have to trust FRONTLINE did their homework properly.

So there we have it. As with many arguments of this nature, there is no clear winner or loser. Was I right in making my claim? Yes, to a certain extent. There are meth-related metrics by which Missouri has recently claimed the dubious distinction of being number one. Was Ben right in calling me on it? Damn straight he was. What I actually said outstripped the facts, and had he not questioned it I wouldn't have given it a second thought. Kudos to him for demanding better of me.

That's one of the reasons I wanted to start the Society: I know I can do better. I can be a better skeptic. I can learn to better filter out the bad ideas that are right now in my head, just like this semi-bogus meth statistic was. But to do better I need practice, and to practice I need help from friends. I can read books and listen to podcasts, but until I let the court of public opinion provided by my peers cross-examinine my ideas, I'll never have a gauge of how well I'm really doing at rooting out my bad thinking.

So thanks, Ben. Pointing out my weaksauce statement may have been a throwaway comment for you, but I appreciate it.


Ben said...

Hey, no problem. Did you learn what the biggest meth city was by chance? I was told it was Grand Junction, CO by some of its residents. I'm sure a lot of cities claim that though. I didn't believe it when I heard it. There do not seem to be enough people there to take a record's worth of meth (only 90,000 in the entire valley). Perhaps they produce a lot and distribute?

Flavin said...

No idea. I was only looking for state-level statistics.

adam said...

From the number of meth treatment admissions per 100,000 residents my vote is on either Oregon or California as the meth capital.

that frontline program on meth is really good. you should watch it.