To the editor of THE EAGLE:
Clarence Fanto’s column of Sunday, March 2 headlined "Pot use rises, alcohol use falls" (referring to a Lenox student survey) is an excellent example of how to misinterpret statistics and concoct misleading conclusions.
Fanto chooses to lead his column by noting "a surge in marijuana use among older students since 2009, particularly among 12th graders." He bases the marijuana claims on the following figures for 12th grade use: 2009, 28 percent; 2011, 17 percent; 2013, 30 percent. A 2 percent change over four years counts as a "surge." If one looks at the figures for eighth graders, which show a decline from 8 percent to 4 percent over the same time, one could easily have led the story with "marijuana use in middle school is cut in half!"
In addition, Fanto quotes Karen Cole of Berkshire United Way explaining the "surge" by blaming a culture of acceptance of marijuana following the 2012 passage of a medical marijuana bill. So, did this only affect the 12th graders and not the 8th graders? And what of the 10th graders who reported very little change in marijuana use?
How about applying just a bit of common sense here? What is missing from all this, of course, is a realization that these numbers are derived from surveys taken by very few people. The total number of students in each grade varies from approximately 50 to 80, and with participation rates in the survey ranging as low as 67 percent it is clear that very small changes in the number of reported users will result in relatively large changes in the percentages reported. The variability in the figures over the four years should also have tipped off Mr. Fanto to the problem of over-interpreting short-term changes.
In the end, the most logical conclusion would be that no clear conclusion can be drawn from the survey results. I know this does not make for an exciting (even alarmist) headline and lead for a story, but it might just represent responsible journalism.