Here’s the thing about “facts.” They can be manipulated — and it happens all of the time. An individual or group with a specific agenda either does a study or commissions one that will prove their point or advance their cause. And the sad thing is that most Americans take these “facts” on face value.
Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. Call me a cynic, a skeptic, or just an ex-journalist. But I don’t take anything on face value — even U.S. pet statistics. So I wasn’t all that surprised when I recently came across an interesting article questioning the validity of the data.
When the numbers don’t add up
The Washington Post article compared and contrasted U.S. pet ownership data for 2016 published by the American Pet Products Association (APPA) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
The APPA indicated that 68 percent of U.S. households owned some sort of pet that year, and that dogs (90 million) and cats (94 million) accounted for most of the pets. On the other hand, the AVMA reported only 57 percent of households had pets at the end of that year, and that the “overall pet population” during the time in question included included 77 million dogs and 58 million cats.
So what’s the big deal? Well, if you think about it, a lot of people base business and personal decisions on these statistics. As the Washington Post article notes, information about pet ownership and the types of people have is can potentially influence actions taken by pet companies, veterinarians, veterinary schools, not to mention millions of others.
Consequently, the use of vastly disparate data is bothersome to Andrew Rowan, a former chief executive of the Humane Society International and a longtime scholar of pet demographics. As he told the Post: “You can’t really make public policy decisions in the absence of data.”
The Post article also suggests that more reliable data is available. Specifically, it cites the Simmons National Consumer Study, which conducts annual household surveys. For 2018, it found that 53 percent of U.S. households owned pets, including at least 77 million dogs and 54 million cats.
Another source of pet ownership identified in the Post story is U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey, which asked about pet ownership in 2013 and 2017. According to the Post, it “most recently reported that 49 percent of households included pets.”
How the Internet influences the outcome
In addition to examining the discrepancies in the APPA and AVMA data, the Post story addresses how these organizations came up with these numbers. Apparently the use of “opt-in” online surveys plays a significant part in the outcome — even though some experts have questioned their accuracy and recommended against their use.
Within this context, it is interesting to note that the APPA and AVMA both relied on traditional mailed surveys until fairly recently, and the results changed significantly once they switched to Internet surveys.
An APPA representative quoted in the Post story confirmed that the organization “believes the switch from mail to web was responsible for the large increase,” and said “researchers sought to combat bias by tracking which types of people completed the survey.”
An AVMA representative also told the Post that its most recent report is “more sophisticated” than prior studies “because it targeted non-pet owners and weighted better for factors like geography and gender.”
An exercise in critical thinking
With all of that being stated, here’s how I evaluate any given set of “facts:”
- I consider who is presenting the “facts”
- I consider their agenda or objective
- I draw my own conclusions
It’s really not that hard. It’s simply an exercise in critical thinking.