While Superintendent Bobby Webb’s announced emphasis on science and math seems a worthy goal for Shelby County Schools, his statistics point out the way that bad information has a way of taking on a life of its own these days.

In the article in today’s The Commercial Appeal reporting on his concern about qualified workers to fill high-tech jobs, the newspaper said he was worried about “some numbers he’s been seeing lately…in any given year, 352,000 engineering graduates will emerge from Indian; 600,000 from China…and in America? 70,000…tops.”

These are numbers that have tossed around by every one from national publications to academicians who should know better.

About eight months ago, Duke University conducted a study as a result of the widespread repeating of these dire statistics as evidence of declining American prowess in the world. The conclusions were simple enough: they are misleading at best and inaccurate at worst.

First of all, when considered in terms of population, the U.S. is producing about 750 engineering graduates for every one million people; in China, it’s 500; and in Indian, it’s 200.

In addition, when China and India report graduates in engineering, they don’t limit them to people with four-year degrees, and they include computer technology specialists and technicians. In fact, only about half of these countries’ annual engineering graduates are capable of competing in an environment known for its outsourcing. To compound the flimsiness of the statistics cited by Mr. Webb, there is even evidence that China includes motor mechanics in its number.

If you look at the kinds of jobs filled by engineers in India and China – low-paid engineering jobs at that – they are those that can be filled by transactional engineers, according to the study. In the area of high-level engineering, it’s a field that is dominated by U.S. engineers, and there’s no reason to predict that it will not remain that way.

Unfortunately, the news media devote much less attention to fact-checking these days, and these statistics have been widely spread by people with their own special interests in creating the impression of a crisis in need of their own specialized cure, whether it is more money for education or more tax breaks for corporations.