A truism among researchers is that regardless of how sophisticated the statistical analysis, there is no substitute for good data. If you have bad data, it is still possible to statistically analyze them but the results, regardless of the complexity of the analysis, will rarely reflect real human behavior. Hence garbage in (bad data), garbage out (a competent analysis premised upon bad data is rarely better than the internal validity of its data garbage.)
One excellent example of this axiom is Friday’s article by three USA Today reporters including a data analysis by a sociologist. The problem is not the analysis,, it is the data and the reporters reliance on it. The data source is 1999 to 2009 FBI Uniform Crime Reports on American border cities. Included are rates of homicide and armed robbery. Based upon these data, analyzed by the sociologist, the three reporters conclude after interviews with a handful of other “experts” that American border, “…cities are havens from drug wars” in Mexico.
Two recent examples demonstrate that these same FBI data, regardless of the sociological analysis, are “garbage”. Last month there was a shootout between federal law enforcement agents and Mexican drug smugglers on the Rio Grande River in South Texas near the small community of Abram. According to American authorities, about 300 rounds were exchanged between drug smugglers on the south side of the river and American law enforcement agents on boats in the river and the northern bank. Initial reports suggest at least one Mexican smuggler was killed and two wounded, although it is possible that the two wounded smugglers were also shot and killed.
The drug smuggler who was killed by shots fired into Mexico by American agents will never be a statistic in the 2011 FBI Uniform Crime Reports. Besides the fact that the alleged suspect was shot by law enforcement officers, the criminal was killed in Mexico and is, therefore, not counted in American crime statistics.
The second example is a small, historically impoverished community not far from Abram where the U.S. Border Patrol and the local police recently erected a substation. The purpose of the substation is to stem the tide of neighborhood children, some as young as 12, from recruitment by Mexican drug traffickers. Just a hundred feet from the Rio Grande, this American community is the site of very active drug smuggling from south of the Rio Grande to a nearby four lane paved road called Old Military Highway. The neighborhood children are paid a few hundred dollars by the cartels to drive get-a-way vehicles to certain locations where the vehicles will be used in the smuggling or possibly serve as decoys. The children are told they are not doing nothing wrong and that they will not be arrested if detected by the Border Patrol or the local cops.
These children who already have been arrested, and those and who are arrested in 2011, are not involved in homicides or armed robbery, so they will never appear as data in FBI Crime Reports.
FBI Crime Reports focusing on homicides and armed robberies are one, and only one, indicator of community violence. In addition, FBI Crime Report data are flawed in several other ways including the fact that the majority of criminal-on-criminal crimes, along with criminal-on-illegal immigrant crimes, most often go unreported for obvious reasons.
Using FBI Crime Report data (the “garbage” data) to conclude that American border “…cities are havens from drug wars” is akin in reasoning and analysis to concluding the only impact on American society of our wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is the number of soldiers who are killed while serving and protecting our country. But just ask the soldiers who served or are serving in these two theatres of war-along with their families-about the impact of the war beyond this statistic; they will tell you a far different story, a more complete and complicated story, that mere numbers can ever tell.
While there is no borderland drug war on the same scale as Iraq or Afghanistan, residents who live in American border communities are increasingly living in very violent and dangerous places. The three USA Reporters based their conclusions on bad data, then spent their time interviewing the wrong “experts”.
What the U.S.A reporters failed to do was talk to both boots-on-the- ground law enforcers and local residents. And their children.
“On U.S. side, cities are havens from drug wars”, Alex Gomez, Jack Gillum, and Kevin Johnson, “USA Today”, 7/15/11.
“The Fence”, Lee Maril, Texas Tech University Press, 2011.