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.

Claim: Facebook wants to curate the news through an algorithm

Insiders have revealed how Facebook is selecting its trending news stories:

Launched in January 2014, Facebook’s trending news section occupies some of the most precious real estate in all of the internet, filling the top-right hand corner of the site with a list of topics people are talking about and links out to different news articles about them. The dozen or so journalists paid to run that section are contractors who work out of the basement of the company’s New York office…

The trending news section is run by people in their 20s and early 30s, most of whom graduated from Ivy League and private East Coast schools like Columbia University and NYU. They’ve previously worked at outlets like the New York Daily News, Bloomberg, MSNBC, and the Guardian. Some former curators have left Facebook for jobs at organizations including the New Yorker, Mashable, and Sky Sports.

According to former team members interviewed by Gizmodo, this small group has the power to choose what stories make it onto the trending bar and, more importantly, what news sites each topic links out to. “We choose what’s trending,” said one. “There was no real standard for measuring what qualified as news and what didn’t. It was up to the news curator to decide.”…

That said, many former employees suspect that Facebook’s eventual goal is to replace its human curators with a robotic one. The former curators Gizmodo interviewed started to feel like they were training a machine, one that would eventually take their jobs. Managers began referring to a “more streamlined process” in meetings. As one former contractor put it: “We felt like we were part of an experiment that, as the algorithm got better, there was a sense that at some point the humans would be replaced.”

The angle here seems to be that (1) the journalists who participated did not feel they were treated well and (2) journalists may not be part of the future process because an algorithm will take over. I don’t know about the first but is the second a major surprise? The trending news will still require content to be generated, presumably created by journalists and news sources all across the Internet. Do journalists want to retain the privilege to not just write the news but also to choose what gets reported? In other words, the gatekeeper role of journalism may slowly disappear if algorithms guide what people see.

Imagine the news algorithms that people might have available to them in the future: one that doesn’t report any violent crime (it is overreported anyway); one that only includes celebrity news (this might include politics, it might not); one that reports on all forms of government corruption; and so on. I’m guessing, however, Facebook’s algorithm would be proprietary and probably is trying to push people into certain behaviors (whether that is sharing more on their profiles or pursuing particular civic or political actions).

Internet headlines and stories present a disconnected world; a pitch for sociology

Whether you read headlines on the Google News page or the Drudge Report or the front page of Yahoo, Internet headlines and stories tend to provide very small slices of reality. Want to see the actions of a happy cat? How about the strange actions from someone with mental illness? What one C-list celebrity did last night? The inane “gaffe” from the campaign trail earlier today? Put all of these headlines together, some serious and many not, and what do you get? It is difficult to get a broad, cohesive view of the world from Internet stories. They can provide more information than people in the past ever had and let us know how many different people around the world live. Even good stories on websites devoted to more in-depth news present numerous topics. Yet, because of their fleeting, diversionary, and never-ending nature, they don’t add up to much. As a reader, how am I to put all the pieces together?

It is debatable how much better other forms of media do in delivering broader context and the bigger picture. Media forms composed of images – TV, films – have moved toward incredibly quick editing so that scenes rarely last more than a few seconds. Written forms – newspapers, magazines – have a reputation for deeper storytelling. Yet, this all assumes that a good number of citizens take the time to read such materials and understand them.

Perhaps this is where we don’t just need media or digital literacy; we need ways to put all the information together and keep the big picture in mind. What is underlying all these stories? What are the patterns in society? Why do these stories get attention and others do not? Sociology can help: you need to know the broader context, the powerful institutions at work in society, how information is created and sold, and the large-scale social trends. One story of an amazing animal tells us nothing; having tens of thousands of such tales might. Reading multiple stories about the Panama Papers might be interesting but we need to know how this intersects with all sorts of social systems (such as governments and corporations) and processes (such as social class and globalization).

It is too easy to get caught up in the quick accumulation of news and information without stepping back and trying to comprehend it all. We are good now at dispensing information but having difficulty digesting. We need frameworks in which to put the new headlines and stories. We need time to consider how this new information might affect us. All of this takes time and effort on the part of individuals – perhaps it is just easier to let all the information wash over us. But, even if we must do this at times, having a sociological perspective that sees social structures and forces and asks for empirical evidence could help us all.

(Disclaimer: I occasionally think about how to pitch sociology to undergraduates and this is one such attempt.)

Who is moving to cities? Young, educated, wealthy, childless, white

Certain people – not everyone – are moving to American cities:

Americans aren’t moving back to the cities. Just 20- and 30-somethings.

But actually, not all 20- and 30-somethings are moving back to the cities. Only those with a four-year college degree and incomes in the top 40 percent are.

And not even all 20- and 30-somethings with a four-year college degree and incomes in the top 40 percent are moving back into cities. Mostly the ones without school-age kids are.

And if you thought that was it, it turns out that not all 20- and 30-somethings with a four-year college degree in the top 40 percent of income without school-age children are moving back into cities. It’s mostly just the ones that are white.

And does this group receive disproportionate attention from (1) city leaders who want a new generation of wealthy city residents and (2) the media who may identify well with these particular demographics? If the people moving to cities did not share these traits (such as immigrants), would they get as much attention?

Thompson also suggests geographic segregation by class: the wealthiest clustering in the densest cities with everyone else setting for suburbia. It has been this way for a while…

11 recommendations from social scientists to journalists reporting scientific findings

Twenty social scientists were asked to give advice to journalists covering scientific research; here are a few of the recommendations.

1) Journalists often want clear answers to life and social problems. Individual studies rarely deliver that…

3) Journalists are obsessed with what’s new. But it’s better to focus on what’s old…

6) There’s a difference between real-world significance and statistical significance

10) Always direct readers back to the original research

And yes, not confusing correlation and causation is on the list. This would indeed be a good list for journalists and the media to keep in mind; the typical social science study produces pretty modest findings. Occasionally, there are studies that truly challenge existing theories and findings or these shifts might happen across a short amount of time or within a few studies.

At the same time, this would be a good list for the general public as well or starting students in a social science statistics or research methods course. For example, students sometimes equate using statistics or numbers with “proof” but that is not really what social science studies provide. Instead, studies tend to provide probabilities – people are more or less likely to have a future behavior or attitude (and this is covered specifically in #5 in the list). Or, we may have to explain in class how studies add up over time and lead to a consensus within a discipline rather than having a single study provide all the evidence (#s 1, 2, 3 on the list).

A need to better measure financial support and wealth passed to Millennials

A look at how race affects the financial support given by parents to Millennials includes this bit about measurement:

Shapiro said the numbers of Millennials receiving support from family are “absolutely underestimated” because many survey questions are not as methodical and specific as those a sociologist might ask. “As much as 90 percent of what you’ll hear isn’t picked up in the survey,” he said.

Shapiro’s more careful research found this:

Shapiro’s work pays special attention to the role of intergenerational family support in wealth building. He coined the term “transformative assets” to refer to any money acquired through family that facilitates social mobility beyond what one’s current income level would allow for. And it’s not that parents and other family members are exceptionally altruistic, either. “It’s how we all operate,” Shapiro said. “Resources tend to flow to people who are more needy.”

Racial disparity in transformative assets became especially striking to Shapiro during interviews with middle-class black Americans. “They almost always talk about financial help they give family members. People come to them,” Shapiro said. But when he asked white interviewees if they were lending financial support to family members, he said, “I almost always get laughter. They’re still getting subsidized.”…

To many Millennials, the small influxes of cash from parents are a lifeline, a financial relief they’re hard pressed to find elsewhere. To researchers, however, it’s both a symptom and an exacerbating factor of wealth inequality. In a 2004 CommonWealth magazine interview, Shapiro explained that gifts like this are “often not a lot of money, but it’s really important money. It’s a kind of money that allows families to obtain something for themselves and for their children that they couldn’t do on their own.”

Two quick thoughts:

  1. Americans tend not to like to talk about passing down wealth but decades of sociological research (as well as research from others) shows that it happens frequently and is quite advantageous for those who have wealth passed to them. I recommend looking at Shapiro and Oliver’s book Black Wealth/White Wealth.
  2. Polls like those cited here from USA Today could lead to lots of problems just because the measurement is not great. Why not ask better poll questions in the first place? I understand there are likely limits to how many questions can be asked (it is costly to ask more and longer questions) but I’d rather have sociologists and other social scientists handling this rather than the media.