News story suggests 40% is “Almost Half”

A Bloomberg story looks at the rise in birth in the United States outside of marriage and has this headline:

Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift

And then the story quickly gets to the data:

Forty percent of all births in the U.S. now occur outside of wedlock, up from 10 percent in 1970, according to an annual report released on Wednesday by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest international provider of sexual and reproductive health services. That number is even higher in the European Union.

Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift

There is no doubt that this is significant trend over nearly 50 years. One expert sums this up toward the end of the story:

The traditional progression of Western life “has been reversed,” said John Santelli, a professor in population, family health and pediatrics at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Cohabiting partners are having children before getting married. That’s a long-term trend across developing nations.”

Yet, the headline oversells the change. A move from 10% of births to 40% of births is large. But, is 40% nearly 50%? When I hear almost half, I would expect a number between 45% and 49.99%. Claiming 40% is nearly half is going a little too far.

I think the reading public would better served by either using the 40% figure or saying “Two-Fifths.” Or, perhaps the headline might speak to the 30% jump in nearly 50 years.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor issue. The rest of the story does a nice job presenting the data and discussing what is behind the change. But, this is a headline dominated age – you have to catch those eyes scrolling quickly on their phones – and this headline goes a bit too far.

If one survey option receives the most votes (18%), can the item with the least votes (2%) be declared the least favorite?

The media can have difficulty interpreting survey results. Here is one recent example involving a YouGov survey that asked about the most attractive regional accents in the United States:

Internet-based data analytics and market research firm YouGov released a study earlier this month that asked 1,216 Americans over the age of 18 about their accent preferences. The firm provided nine options, ranging from regions to well-known dialects in cities. Among other questions, YouGov asked, “Which American region/city do you think has the most attractive accent?”

The winner was clear. The Southeastern accent, bless its heart, took the winning spot, with the dialect receiving 18 percent of the vote from the study’s participants. Texas wasn’t too far behind, nabbing the second-most attractive accent at 12 percent of the vote…

The least attractive? Chicago rolls in dead last, with just 2 percent of “da” vote.

John Kass did not like the results and consulted a linguist:

I called on an expert: the eminent theoretical linguist Jerry Sadock, professor emeritus of linguistics from the University of Chicago…

“The YouGov survey that CBS based this slander on does not support the conclusion. The survey asked only what the most attractive dialect was, the winner being — get this — Texan,” Sadock wrote in an email.

“Louie Gohmert? Really? The fact that very few respondents found the Chicago accent the most attractive, does not mean that it is the least attractive,” said Sadock. “I prefer to think that would have been rated as the second most attractive accent, if the survey had asked for rankings.”

In the original YouGov survey, respondents were asked: “Which American region/city do you think has the most attractive accent?” Respondents could select one option. The Chicago accent did receive the least number of selections.

However, Sadock has a point. Respondents could only select one option. If they had the opportunity to rank them, would the Chicago accent move up as a non-favorite but still-liked accent? It could happen.

Additionally, the responses were fairly diverse across the respondents. The original “winner” Southeastern accent was only selected by 18% of those surveyed. This means that over 80% of the respondents did not select the leading response. Is it fair to call this the favorite accent of Americans when fewer than one-fifth of respondents selected it?

Communicating the nuances of survey results can be difficult. Yet, journalists and other should resist the urge to immediately identify “favorites” and “losers” in such situations where the data does not show an overwhelming favorite respondents did not have the opportunity to rate all of the possible responses.

Can a list of the most beautiful homes in Dallas include McMansions?

An earlier article I published suggested McMansions are not viewed as negatively in Dallas compared to New York City. The list of “the hand-down 10 most beautiful homes in Dallas” from D Magazine includes two references to McMansions:

Each year of the last decade, the editors of D Home have canvassed the city to bring you a list of “10 Most Beautiful Homes” that hopefully appeal to every taste. While on the road, we’ve spilled endless Diet Cokes due to sudden stops, exposed ourselves to the occasional McMansion, and risked looking like embarrassingly low-tech private investigators snapping photos with our iPhones. We do it all for you!…

We once named Tokalon Drive the most beautiful street in Dallas, which we suppose makes this 4236-square-foot dwelling the most beautiful home on the most beautiful street in Dallas. Plus, it reminds us why turrets are actually totally cool and not just something that just gets thrown on a McMansion. All that’s missing is a moat.

Yet, the list of 10 homes includes no McMansions. While these are large and expensive homes, all were constructed prior to World War II and have an architectural coherence that many McMansions lack. However, homes on this list for previous years did include newer homes and I would guess some of these 2017 selections have had major work done to them which might also negate some of their old-image charm.

Even in Dallas, such lists may not be able to select or trumpet McMansions as beautiful homes. If you run in certain circles – particularly when your readers are educated and wealthy – McMansions are a dirty word. A magazine like this that considers itself “a member of the original generation of city magazines: New York Magazine, Washingtonian, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago” could likely not support such as crass consumer item as the McMansion.

Why might Americans be interested in the most expensive homes?

Here is one segment of the housing market that is again doing well:

Sale prices of luxury homes in the second quarter of this year were up 7.5 percent from a year ago, the first time luxury gains have outpaced the rest of the market since 2014, according to Redfin, a real estate brokerage which defines luxury as the top 5 percent of the most expensive homes sold in each city in each quarter.

While some point to the recent runup in the stock market, the real reason for the luxury recovery may be a shift in the mind of sellers. They were asking too much, and now that they’re asking less, there is more action in the market, in turn boosting prices again…

Luxury home sales have been rising steadily, causing the supply of those homes for sale to drop. Sales of homes priced above $1 million jumped 19 percent in June compared with a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors. That was a much larger sales gain than in any of the lower price points.

The sales surge has caused a decline in the supply of luxury homes. Listings at or above $1 million fell 9.4 percent compared with the same period last year, according to Redfin. Those priced at or above $5 million were down about the same. This after five consecutive quarters of double-digit inventory growth.

This change in the luxury market is unlikely to help many Americans though a number of these expensive properties get a lot of media attention. Come to think of it, what exactly is the purpose of media outlets regularly showing expensive homes? Here are a few options:

  1. This could be the curiosity of the masses regarding the practices of the wealthy. How does the other half (or top 10%) live?
  2. Or, is it intended as a critique of the well-resourced by holding up their lavishness up for public display? Look at those wealthy people with their ostentatious homes.
  3. Alternatively, might it encourage class conflict and social change since these expensive homes are out of reach of most Americans? For the many Americans who struggle to find decent housing, highlighting the luxury of the wealthy might serve as a reminder of the distance between groups.
  4. At the least, such regular stories might display the important place real estate and homeownership play in American wealth. It is one thing to own financial instruments but another to purchase more tangible items like property and housing.

This all might be different if the housing market as a whole was booming, particularly if the lower end of the market with smaller homes or starter houses was growing. I suppose this could be a research question: during periods of rising economic boats for all (such as the several decades after World War II), are there fewer media stories on homes and properties of the wealthy compared to homes for the average person?

Mutant stat: 4.2% of American kids witnessed a shooting last year

Here is how a mutant statistic about the exposure of children to shootings came to be:

It all started in 2015, when University of New Hampshire sociology professor David Finkelhor and two colleagues published a study called “Prevalence of Childhood Exposure to Violence, Crime, and Abuse.” They gathered data by conducting phone interviews with parents and kids around the country.

The Finkelhor study included a table showing the percentage of kids “witnessing or having indirect exposure” to different kinds of violence in the past year. The figure under “exposure to shooting” was 4 percent.

The findings were then reinterpreted:

Earlier this month, researchers from the CDC and the University of Texas published a nationwide study of gun violence in the journal Pediatrics. They reported that, on average, 7,100 children under 18 were shot each year from 2012 to 2014, and that about 1,300 a year died. No one has questioned those stats.

The CDC-UT researchers also quoted the “exposure to shooting” statistic from the Finkelhor study, changing the wording — and, for some reason, the stat — just slightly:

“Recent evidence from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence indicates that 4.2 percent of children aged 0 to 17 in the United States have witnessed a shooting in the past year.”

The reinterpreted findings were picked up by the media:

The Dallas Morning News picked up a version of the Washington Post story.

When the Dallas Morning News figured out something was up (due to a question raised by a reader) and asked about the origins of the statistic, they uncovered some confusion:

According to Finkelhor, the actual question the researchers asked was, “At any time in (your child’s/your) life, (was your child/were you) in any place in real life where (he/she/you) could see or hear people being shot, bombs going off, or street riots?”

So the question was about much more than just shootings. But you never would have known from looking at the table.

This appears to be a classic example of a mutant statistic as described by sociologist Joel Best in Damned Lies and Statistics. As Best explains, it doesn’t take much for a number to be unintentionally twisted such that it becomes nonsensical yet interesting to the public because it seems shocking. And while the Dallas Morning News might deserve some credit for catching the issue and trying to set the record straight, the incorrect statistic is now in the public and can easily be found.

NYT: Yes, don’t trust online polls

Although the purpose here may truly be to discredit Donald Trump, here is another argument in the New York Times against online polls:

“Those do a good job of engaging audiences online, and they do a good job of letting you know how other people who have come to the webpage feel about whatever issue,” said Mollyann Brodie, the executive director for public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “But they’re not necessarily good at telling you, in general, what people think, because we don’t know who’s come to that website and who’s taken it.”

Professional pollsters use scientific statistical methods to make sure that their small random samples are demographically appropriate to indicate how larger groups of people think. Online polls do nothing of the sort, and are not random, allowing anyone who finds the poll to vote. They are thus open to manipulation from those who would want to stuff the ballot box. Users on Reddit and 4chan directed masses of people to vote for Mr. Trump in the instant-analysis surveys, according to The Daily Dot. Similar efforts were observed on Twitter and other sites.

Even when there is no intentional manipulation, the results are largely a reflection of who is likely to come to a particular site and who would be motivated enough to participate. Intuitively, it’s no surprise that readers of sites like Breitbart News and the Drudge Report would see Mr. Trump as the winner, just as Mrs. Clinton would be more likely to find support on liberal sites…

“In our business, the key is generalizability,” he said, referring to the ability of a sample group to apply to a wider population. “That’s the core of what we do. Typically, it takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort, and a lot of money to do it.”

One helpful solution may be to have media outlets refuse to use any online polls. On one hand, journalists often remind the public that they don’t mean anything while they consistently offer them on their website or on the evening news broadcast. They may have some marketing purpose – perhaps participants feel more engaged or it can give outlets some indication of how many people are going further than just passively taking it in – but why confuse people.

Chicago’s loss of nearly 3,000 residents in 2015 is an estimate

Chicago media were all over the story this week that Chicago was the only major American city to lose residents in 2015. The Chicago Tribune summed it up this way:

This city has distinguished itself as the only one among the nation’s 20 largest to actually lose population in the 12-month stretch that ended June 30.

Almost 3,000 fewer people live here compared with a year earlier, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, while there’s been a decline of more than 6,000 residents across the larger metropolitan area.

Chicago’s decline is a mere 0.1 percent, which is practically flat. But cities are like corporations in that even slow growth wins more investor confidence than no growth, and losses are no good at all.

The last paragraph cited above is a good one; 3,000 people either way is not very many and this is all about perceptions.

But, there is a larger issue at stake. These population figures are estimates. Estimates. They are not exact. In other words, the Census Bureau doesn’t measure every person moving in or leaving for good. They do the best the can with the data they have to work with.

For example, on May 19 the Census released the list of the fastest growing cities in America. Here is what they say about the population figures:

To produce population estimates for cities and towns, the Census Bureau first generates county population estimates using a component of population change method, which updates the latest census population using data on births, deaths, and domestic and international migration. This yields a county-level total of the population living in households. Next, updated housing unit estimates and rates of overall occupancy are used to distribute county household population into geographic areas within the county. Then, estimates of the population living in group quarters, such as college dormitories and prisons, are added to create estimates of the total resident population.

If you want to read the methodology behind producing the 2015 city population figures, read the two page document here.

So why doesn’t the Census and the media report the margin of error? What exactly is the margin of error? For a city of Chicago’s size – just over 2.7 million – couldn’t a loss of 3,000 residents actually be a small gain in population or a loss double the size? New York’s gain of 55,000 people in 2015 seems pretty sure to be positive regardless of the margin of error. But, small declines – as published here in USA Today – seem a bit misleading:

I know the media and others want hard numbers to work with but it should be made clear that these are the best estimates we can come up with and they may not be exact. I trust the Census Bureau is doing all it can to make such projections – but they are not perfect.