What the CDC Really Says About Dog Bites and Pit Bulls

The actual conclusion on the CDC's report on dog bite fatalities. 
Having a journalist for a father doesn't necessarily guarantee that you have the skills or the interest in being a journalist yourself.  For example, look at Charlotte Alter.  In recent piece for Time Magazine, Charlotte, desperate for traffic on a story with her byline, decided to write about pit bulls.  Her hook was the now disproven story of a family who was (but actually wasn't) refused service because of their child's scars from being bitten by her grandfather's dogs.  Charlotte's research included about five minutes on Google and no fact-checking at all.  Of course, there was a flurry of response from professionals in the animal welfare industry, but Charlotte scoffed at their claims (after all, what would vets and other professionals possibly know about animals?).  In fact, in spite of the fact the very premise of her story was proven to be false, she announced that she stood by her reporting.  

But lets take a look at just one of her claims: "A CDC report on dog-bite fatalities from 1978 to 1998 confirms that pit bulls are responsible for more deaths than any other breed."  But does it?  Here's what the CDC actually says about pit bulls:

"A CDC study on fatal dog bites lists the breeds involved in fatal attacks over 20 years (Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998). It does not identify specific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill, and thus is not appropriate for policy-making decisions related to the topic. Each year, 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs. These bites result in approximately 16 fatalities; about 0.0002 percent of the total number of people bitten. These relatively few fatalities offer the only available information about breeds involved in dog bites. There is currently no accurate way to identify the number of dogs of a particular breed, and consequently no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill."

Reread that a few times.  Where is it that they confirm that pit bulls are responsible for more deaths than any other breed?  Alter bypasses the CDC's own statement on their study, which is itself more than a decade old.  But she does link to the paper itself, so maybe it says something different?  No, even the study offers this conclusion:  "Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers), other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates. Because of difficulties inherent in determining a dog's breed with certainty, enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues. Fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and, therefore, should not be the primary factor driving public policy concerning dangerous dogs. Many practical alternatives to breed-specific ordinances exist and hold promise for prevention of dog bites."

Did Alter even read the report she linked to?  Probably not.  And the conclusions she claimed to draw from it are therefore not hers, but rather the crazy rantings of her other sources, including Merritt Clifton, a man who also claims that there is a corresponding relationship between hunting licenses and child abuse.  

So now Alter's grade-school level reporting is being used as a source itself, inspiring another writer desperate for attention to "write" a piece about pit bulls, culling all her information from Alter's band of looney experts.  Heather Wilhelm reports this: "Statistical reports from a wide range of sources—including the CDC, PETA, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Annals of Surgery, and a multi-decade, comprehensive report from the editor of Animal People (Merritt Clifton again) magazine—show one common theme: Pit bulls, like it or not, are far and away the most dangerous dog in America."  Again, any reader with even a tiny functioning brain must wonder--where is this CDC report that offers statistical proof that pit bulls are the "most dangerous dog in America."  It doesn't exist.  And we shouldn't trust the work of any reporter who claims that it does.


Kristen said…
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! There are probably some biases at work here. Confirmation bias would fit if only there was anything the article's author was confirming. I've been an avid TIME reader for a couple decades, but that online piece shook my loyalty. We'll see about things when renewal is due.
Aimee Chagnon said…
And the Annals of Surgery article was so incredibly bad, so poorly done (I can't call it "researched") that had it been done on a topic that did not make people leave their senses behind, it would never have made it past the editorial review. It was a low point for such a major journal and a frightening example of how otherwise rational people can go stupid over this topic.

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