As any regular reader of this website knows, all counterfeiting statistics are bullshit. Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Harley Lewin in the March 19 issue isn’t online, but it’s a prime example of the problem. I’m sure that what happened is that MacFarquhar got some numbers from trade organizations, and passed those numbers on to the fact checkers, who checked nothing beyond the fact that the trade organizations said what MacFarquhar said they were saying. Only the problem is that MacFarquhar doesn’t attribute her statistics to trade organizations, she simply presents them as plain fact: 2% of all airplane parts installed each year are counterfeit, she says, and 10% of all pharmaceuticals are counterfeit. And, my favorite example of numbers pulled out of thin air suddenly transmogrifying into New Yorker-endorsed fact:
The world market in counterfeit goods in the mid-eighties was only a hundredth of the size that it is now.
Yeah, right. I’ll happily give $1,000 to anybody who can plausibly demonstrate that.
Occasionally MacFarquhar will actually cite a named source, but even then she does so in an utterly credulous way:
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that counterfeiting is an enormous threat to the future economic health of the US,” Rick Cotton, chairman of the United States Chamber of Commerce-led Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Piracy, says. “Industries driven by intellectual property account for nearly half of our economic growth and drive sixty per cent of the growth of our exports. If the counterfeiting trend continues, it is going to ravage our economy and undermine our future.”
Which assumes, of course, that Rick Cotton knows what the “counterfeiting trend” is. He doesn’t. No one does. But in any case, if these industries are really accounting for half of our economic growth, that’s kinda prima facie evidence that they’re not being “ravaged” by counterfeiting, no? Of course, MacFarquhar never presents any kind of skepticism. If I were being cynical, I’d say that was because she was writing in the Style Issue of the New Yorker, and that such sentiments might risk annoying advertisers. But actually I think that journalists in general simply don’t bother to question these statistics — this is laziness, not conspiracy.