May 21, 2010
For whatever reasons–reduced newsroom budgets? the proliferation of complex issues?– the news media seems to have made a habit of reporting study results as reality, however inconclusive the studies actually are. For the last decade or so, the unquestioning paraphrasing (even verbatim reprinting) of announcement releases as “news” has grown endemic.
Case in point: a recent Research and Policy Brief (pdf) from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis declares that “the wealth gap between white and African American families has more than quadrupled over the course of a generation (1984-2007).”
The result has been very widely reported… in a way that largely paraphrases the press release (e.g., here, here, here). And it’s been very widely discussed… in a way that takes the report’s findings as stipulated (e.g., here, here, and here).
What’s interesting is that the Brandeis study is based on a “standing panel” (The Panel Survey of Income Dynamics, University of Michigan). Other studies– like Ed Wolff‘s/NYU’s– use other data sets (in Wolff’s case, Federal Reserve data) and get radically different results (in Wolff’s case, while the gap is large, there’s been no change over the last couple of decades)…
To observe the obvious: either outcome is bad. No change is certainly not good– but it’s a very different reality than four times worse.
Now, it’s easy to make cases for both data sets/methodologies… what’s striking to me is that most of the reportage takes no account of this “squishiness”; it recounts the Brandeis findings as if they’re as Platonicly-solid as a temperature reading. (The one exception I’ve found in this instance is the public radio program Marketplace, which did cite the Wolff study.)
This is a moderately benign example of the phenomenon, as in this case, while the degree of response may be in question, there’s no directional policy impact from the imprecision: the wealth gap between white and African-American families is either large or larger. In either case, there’s an inequity to address. But as the Census process grinds on– with an all-too-grounded fear on Bureau officials’ parts that the results will not be representative– the coverage of Brandeis study is a(nother) reminder of the epistemological challenges to informed citizenship and policy-making.
At least the Brandeis and NYU studies and the Census are trying to find “the truth”; even then, it’s a problem. But the conflicting statistical arguments that rain on the debates over financial reform, immigration reform, health care, and the like are “evidence”– data cobbled together to make a point, to justify a position. They’re not about “truth”; they’re about achieving an outcome.
Indeed, the noise level is sometimes so high that it’s tempting just to say “plague on all your houses”– to ignore issues altogether, or to deny all of the evidence as prima facie unreliable, precisely because it’s evidence. But of course, denial isn’t an option; the issues at stake are simply too grave.
Happily, inconsistent data doesn’t have to mean paralysis. There’s real disagreement, for example, on the specifics of climate disruption; still, the preponderance of studies– and the agreement of virtually every informed observer– make it clear that there is a huge problem on which we must act. Like the income disparity between whites and Africa-Americans, the direction is clear.
But even these directionally-clear issues get murky as we try to get more specific, to divine trustworthy grounds for appropriate action. And other less obvious issues (e.g., the aforementioned financial reform, immigration reform, health care, and the like) are even murkier, clouded as they are by a fog of statistical arguments– arguments that are too often amplified, not clarified, by the media.
There is reportage that regularly looks deeper– e.g., Planet Money, How the World Works– and commentary– e.g., Grasping Reality With Both Hands, Beat the Press– and thank the Lord for them. But surely the real moral of this tale is that each of us needs to read (and watch and listen to) the news that we get much more critically…
We owe it to our society and to ourselves to make ourselves numerate– to develop the capacity to question constructively, to determine what we can know and what we can’t, to bracket the uncertainty we face– so that we can make better-informed decisions as to when and how to act.
Mark Twain (quoting Disraeli) famously observed that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In facing them, it’s wise to assume that we’re on our own.
Filed in Economic, Information Industry, Media and Entertainment, Political, Scenario Planning, Social
Tags: African-American wealth, brandeia, Census, Census Bureau, Edward Wolff, income, Institute on Assets and Social Policy, media, news, news media, numeracy, NYU, policy, press, reporting, statistics, The Panel Survey of Income Dynamics, University of Michigan, wealth
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reminds us that it’s smart to stay in school:
But as Calculated Risk reports, while unemployment among the best educated is still lowest, it’s increased as much in percentage terms for them during this current recession as for any other group.
One notes that all four groups** were slow to rebound after the 2001 recession– not an encouraging reminder if one is hoping for a brisk employment-led, consumption-fueled recovery this time around.
But in some ways more striking is a difference we might expect, but that hasn’t yet emerged. Calculated Risk:
I’d expect the unemployment rate to fall faster for workers with higher levels of education, since their skills are more transferable, than for workers with less education. I’d also expect the unemployment rate for workers with lower levels of education to stay elevated longer in this “recovery” because there is no building boom this time. Just a guess and it isn’t happening so far … currently the unemployment rate for the highest educated group is still increasing.
Clearly, from an individual’s point-of-view, it’s still smarter to get more education than less. But the perturbations of past periods remind us that the gearing between between academic degrees and financial success isn’t always perfectly tight… Indeed, those with sharply-defined professional credentials in fields– e.g, finance– that are unlikely even in the intermediate term (if ever) to recover their bubble-fueled growth rates, may find their advanced degrees at best unhelpful; at worst, downright prejudicial.
Economic recovery and growth will be driven to some large extent by innovation; that innovation will create new– and new kinds of– jobs. Looking even just five years out, much less ten, one has to admit that it’s just not possible to predict what these emergent jobs, nor their requirements, will be. (Consider, e.g., the hottest topic– and job category– in marketing/advertising these days: “social media marketing”… which wasn’t even a glimmer a decade ago, and was just being born five year ago.) This is a challenge for those new to the work force, who have to wrangle the product of their schooling and their personal experience into a shape that can fit the entry-level positions they seek. It is a much bigger challenge for those mid-career who find themselves needy of making a move: these more mature folks have not only to learn new fields, they also have to re-direct the considerable momentum of perception and habit that characterized their old– and they have to do those things, usually, in ways that justify salaries way north of entry-level.
All of which underlines for your correspondent the extraordinary value of a liberal arts education. When one is faced with a “working adulthood” that is one transitional challenge after another, no skill is more valuable than the capacity to adapt. And no capability is more central to that adaptation than the ability effectively and efficiently to learn.
This is precisely what, at its core, a liberal arts education is about: learning to learn.
There are many, many other reasons, rooted in personal and societal benefits, to pursue a liberal arts education, and top support a strong foundation of liberal arts in higher education. But the lessons of the last couple of years– indeed, of the last several decades– suggest that the economic rationale is plenty strong as well…
And besides, it’s fun.
* “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”
- Albert Einstein
** To put these cohorts into perspective, the Census Bureau suggests that, of these folks “25 yrs. and over” (in 2008):
- 13.4% had less than a high school diploma.
- 31.2% were high school graduates, no college.
- 26.0% had some college or associate degree.
- 29.4% had a college degree or higher.
UPDATE: Reader JK directs our attention to another treatment of the data, in the NY Times. As he suggests, even more dramatic.
Filed in Economic, Political, Scenario Planning, Social
Tags: 1933 Banking Act, Albert Einstein, Bank Holiday, Banking Act of 1933, Banking Holiday, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, Congress Federal Reserve, Depression, earnings, economic crisis, economic recovery, education, Emergency Banking Act, employment, FDIC, Federal Deposit Insurance Company, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Great Depression, higher education, income, liberal arts, liberal arts education, New Deal, professional education, Recession, Unemployment, unemployment rate