WAG Goldilocks statistics

WAG Goldilocks statistics: Longtime readers of the rexblog know that a constant rant around here involves reporters and numbers — the two should never mix. Today, Romenesko points to this story in Legaltimes.com.


On May 17, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the launch of the Justice Department’s Project Safe Childhood by citing a terrifying statistic: “It has been estimated that, at any given time, 50,000 predators are on the Internet prowling for children.” But where did that figure come from?…Ken Lanning, who spent 30 years at the FBI, is skeptical about the stat, whoever originated it. “Was it just a WAG — a wild-assed-guess?” he says. “It could have been.” Lanning theorizes that there may be something special about the number 50,000 and crime scares. In the late 1980s, the figure was cited by the media as an estimate of the number of people slaughtered annually by satanic cults. In the early 1980s, it was similarly cited as the number of children abducted annually by strangers. “For some reason the number 50,000 keeps popping up,” he says. “Maybe because it’s not small and not large. It’s a Goldilocks number.”

This reminds me of a recent blog-meme “statistics” theory that 53,651 is the targeted audience of most Web 2.0 startups. (That magic number is based on the number of people who subscribe to the RSS feed of Micahel Arrington’s TechCrunch weblog.  The number bounces around, so it’s not the same today).

So, here’s my hint for the next startup guy who gets push-back based on the fact their “traction” is not adhering to the now-gospel “53,651” rule. Immediately say, “That’s just some Goldilocks number everyone knows is a WAG stat.”

Also, for the record, I’m all for protecting kids from “predators prowling the Internet for children” even if there are only 5 or 500 or 5,000 instead of 50,000.

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