Is the world worse off now or do we just know more about what happens every day?

The bad news seems to keep rolling in. A pandemic. The earthquake in Haiti. Afghanistan. Tropical storms. Tyranny. And so on. This raises a question I have asked myself many times in recent years: is the world actually worse off or do we just know more about global affairs and smaller events?

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Here are just some of the ways this question could be answered:

-In some macro trends, this is a great time to be alive. I’m thinking of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature or Hans Rosling’s Factfulness where they argue that by multiple measures, whether the percent of deaths by warfare or indicators of public health, we are better off.

-The scale of both mass media and social media means we can know more about the world and daily occurrences than ever before. With relatively little effort, we can see the bad in the world on a small and grand scale every minute (and find commentary on it). We are flooded with information.

-The world has changed so rapidly in the last few centuries that we collectively are still trying to catch up to the new challenges and/or the new ways that challenges manifest themselves. For example, pandemics are not new in human history but the way people respond to them in the particular conditions of 2020 and 2021 is.

-We now see the world differently or expect different things compared to people of the past. The social changes of recent centuries mean more individualism and agency, the rise of the self and the diminishing of some traditional forms of authority, and expectations about standards of living.

-Certain groups might lean in to the distressing news. For example, American evangelicals for decades have played up the connection between the apocalypse and current events. Or, political actors might use negative news to criticize others or promote particular policies.

-Humans can feel losses more than equal wins. It is hard to know whether we take in more positive or negative news overall but we might feel the negative news more.

-There really is more bad than good happening in the world.

The difficulty of measuring TV watching (COVID-19 and otherwise)

Nielsen and TV networks are sparring over Nielsen data that suggests fewer people are watching television during COVID-19:

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Through the trade group Video Advertising Bureau, the networks are perplexed by Nielsen statistics that show the percentage of Americans who watched their televisions at least some time during the week declined from 92% in 2019 to 87% so far this year.

Besides being counter-intuitive in the pandemic era, the VAB says that finding runs counter to other evidence, including viewing measurements from set-top cable boxes, the increased amount of streaming options that have become available and a jump in sales for television sets…

The number of families, particularly large families, participating in Nielsen measurements has dropped over the past year in percentages similar to the decrease in viewership, Cunningham said. Nielsen acknowledges that its sample size is smaller — the company is not sending personnel into homes because of COVID-19 — but said statistics are being weighted to account for the change…

More people are spending time on tablets and smartphones, which aren’t measured by Nielsen. The podcast market is soaring. Sports on television was interrupted. Due to production shutdowns, television networks were airing far more reruns, Nielsen said.

This sounds like a coming together of long-term trends and short-term realities. The long-term trends include people engaging with media across a wider range of devices, it takes work to measure all of their viewing and finding people to participate in any data collection, and there are a lot of entertainment choices competing with television. In the short-term, COVID-19 pushed people home but it disrupted their typical patterns.

Will this affect the long-running place television has in the everyday lives of Americans? Even as of 2018, Nielsen reported that the average American watched more than 4 hours of television a day. TV might be conveyed through different formats – streaming, handheld devices, etc. – but it is still a powerful force and a significant use of time.

At the same time, how TV is consumed and how this affects what television means could be quite different moving forward. Watching streaming television on a smartphone while commuting is a very different experience than sitting on the couch after dinner for an hour or two and watching a big-screen TV. Teasing out these differences takes some work but a new and/or younger generation of TV viewers might have quite a disparate relationship with television.

Asking tough questions of American athletes

The story of a Danish journalist who covers the NFL and asks certain questions of players hints at cultural differences in approaching both sports and important social issues:

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Back in 2016, Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen lived in Burbank, Calif., for a year with his wife and son. It had always been his dream to spend some time in the States, so when his parent company asked him to help its esports arm transition from Twitch streaming to television studio production in Los Angeles, he jumped at the opportunity. He had a great house and a pool. He had friendly colleagues at work.

But what he noticed over time is that he’d end up having a version of the same conversation every day, one that never broke beneath the surface. He remembered, for example, being confused about a situation involving how to get the local water authority to turn the water on at his house and wanting to ask someone about it—a step beyond hello and how are you. He felt like there was an immediate recoil…

It shines a light on something that seems to permeate culturally, reverberating from the sporting world that Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen finds himself thinking so much about. Maybe it’s the end result of widespread, rigorous media training, which creates a fast-food experience of well-meaning words pieced nicely together but ultimately containing no substance, an appeal to our innate desire to move on. In some unconscious way, does our lack of exposure to actual humility and openness inform our default setting, which is to simply wince through the tough stuff and avoid it in real life, too?…

The phenomenon is not necessarily unique to the U.S. Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen saw, for example, the further any players drifted from Denmark (perhaps to the English Premiere League) the less likely they were to be interested in answering difficult questions or exhibiting any kind of remorse for something negative that had happened. It creates a situation where it feels for Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen like he is doing something wrongwhen he’s merely asking fair questions.

At the least, this story sheds light on how others in the world can view what many Americans would take as normal. The NFL is the NFL. Except when you are viewing it with a different lens. Americans also have the ability to watch many sports around the world through an American lens with an American network and broadcasters providing the commentary and interpretation.

At a deeper level, this asks what we expect to hear from athletes and others regularly in the public eye. Does it generally ring true that Americans just want to stick to sports, rather than consider the actions of athletes and those associated with teams? Probably, even as sports has been an important social scene regarding social change (and resisting it).

Making a big deal out of a round number, Dow at 30,000 edition

The Dow recently topped 30,000. What is notable about this number?

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How big a deal is Dow 30,000?

It’s just an arbitrary number, and it doesn’t mean things are much better than when the Dow was at 29,999. What’s more impactful is that the Dow has finally clawed back all its losses from the pandemic and is once again reaching new heights. It is up 61.5% since dropping below 18,600 on March 23.

It took just over nine months for the Dow to surpass the record it had set in February, before panic about the coronavirus triggered the market’s breathtaking sell-off.

I like this explanation for two reasons. First, it downplays hitting 30,000 just because it is a large round number. Why should 30,000 be more important than 29,000 or 29,852? Because round numbers seem more meaningful to us, especially one that is a change from the 20,000s to the 30,000s. Second, it provides a longer context for the rise to 30,000. That particular number is meaningful in part because of the record in February, the drop in March, and then the steady rise. Arguably, this rise since March is much more important than getting past a particular number.

In addition to these steps, a few more could help people interpret the 30,000 figure. Instead of focusing on a particular number, how about discussing the percentage change? This is done regularly with other financial figures. Such a story is ripe for a visual showing the change over time. And a final option would be to downplay such milestone numbers in this story and in future reporting and instead focus on other markers of financial patterns rather than emphasizing outliers (peaks and valleys).

Trying to fit all the election results on one television screen

I watched briefly a number of election night broadcasts last night. One conclusion I came to: there is way too much data to fit on a television screen. And if you want more of the data, you need the Internet, not television.

The different broadcasts tried similar variations: flipping back and forth between a set of anchors and pundits at desks and analysts at a smart board showing election results from different states and locations. They have done this for enough election nights that the process is pretty established.

While they do this, there is often a lot of data on the screen. This could include: a map of the United States with states shaded; a chryon at the bottom with scrolling news; another panel at the bottom flipping through results from different races; and people talking, sometimes in connection to the data on the screen and sometimes. If the analyst at the smart board is on the screen, there is another set of maps to consider.

CNN broadcast, November 4, 2020

This is a lot to take in and it might not be enough. The broadcasts try to balance all of the levels of government – from the presidential race to congressional districts – and are flipping back and forth. I appreciated seeing the more simple approach of PBS which went with a lot less data on the screen, bigger images of the talking heads, and simple summary graphics of the winners.

But, if you want the data, the television broadcast does not cut it. Numerous websites offered single pages where one could monitor all of the major races in real-time. Want to keep up on both local and national races? Have two pages open. Want reaction? Add social media in a third window. Use multiple Internet-connected devices including smartphones, tablets, and computers (and maybe Internet-enabled televisions).

Furthermore, web pages give users more control over the data they are seeing. Take the final 2020 election forecast from FiveThirtyEight:

On one page, readers could see multiple presentations of data plus explanations. Want to scroll through in 10 seconds and see the headlines? Fine. Want to spend 5 minutes analyzing the various graphics? That works. Want to click on all the links for the metholodogy and commentary? A reader could do that too.

The one big advantage television offers is that it offers commentary and faces in real-time plus the potential for live coverage from the scene (such as images of gatherings for candidates) and feeling like the viewer is present when major announcements are made. The Internet has approximations of this – lively social media accounts, live blogs – but it is not the same feeling. (Of course, when you have more than ten live election night broadcasts available on your television, the audience will be pretty split there as well.) Elections are not just about data for many; they also include emotions, presence, and the potential for important memories.

Given these differences in media, I did what I am guessing many did last night: I consumed both television and Internet/social media coverage. Neither are perfect for the task. I had to go to sleep eventually. And whoever can figure out how to combine the best elements of both for election nights may do very well for themselves.

When I see “study” in a news story, I (wrongly) assume it is a peer-reviewed analysis

In the last week, I have run into two potentially interesting news stories that cite studies. Yet, when I looked into what kind of studies these were, they were not what I expected.

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First, the Chicago Tribune online headline: “Why are Chicagoans moving away during the pandemic? As study suggests outbound migration is spiking, we asked them.” The opening to the story:

Chicago’s population has been on the decline for years, with the metropolitan area suffering some of the greatest losses of any major U.S. city. But new research suggests that the pandemic might be exacerbating the exodus.

For the first time in four years, moving concierge app Updater has helped more people move out of Chicago than to it, the company said. The catch-all moving service estimates that it takes part in one-third of all U.S. moves, providing unique, real-time insight into pandemic-driven trends, said Jenna Weinerman, Updater’s vice president of marketing.

“All these macro conditions — job insecurity, remote work, people wanting to gain more space — are coming together to create these patterns,” Weinerman said.

The Chicago figures are based on approximately 39,000 moves within city limits from March 1 to Sept. 30. Compared to 2019, this year saw more moving activity in general, with an 8% jump in moves into the city — but a 19% increase in the number of people leaving.

The second article involved a study at Cafe Storage and the headline “Average Home Size in the US: New Homes Bigger than 10 Years Ago but Apartments Trail Behind” (also cited in the Chicago Tribune) From the story:

According to the latest available US Census data, the average size of single family homes built in the US was trending upwards from 2010 until 2017, when sizes hit a peak of 2,643 square feet. Since then, single family homes began decreasing in size, with homes built in 2019 averaging 2,611 square feet…

Location matters when it comes to average home size. Some urban hotspots follow the national trend, while others move in the opposite direction. Here’s how single family home and apartment sizes look in the country’s top 20 largest cities, based on Yardi Matrix, Property Shark and Point2Homes data.

As an academic, here is what I expect when I hear the word study:

  1. Peer-reviewed work published in an academic outlet.
  2. Rigorous methodology and trusted data sources.

These steps do not guarantee research free from error but it does impose standards and steps intended to reduce errors.

In both cases, this analysis does not meet those standards. Instead, they utilize more proprietary data and serve the companies or websites publicizing the findings. This does not necessarily mean the findings are untrue. It does, however, make it much more difficult for journalists or the public to know how the study was conducted, what the findings are, and what it all means.

Use of the term study is related to a larger phenomena: many organizations, businesses, and individuals have potentially interesting data to contribute to public discussions and policy making. For example, without official data about the number of people moving out of cities, we are left searching for other data sources. How reliable are they? What data is anecdotal and what can be trusted? Why don’t academics and journalists find better data?

If we use the word “study” to refer to any data analysis, we risk making it even harder for people to discern what is a trustworthy study and what is not. Call it an analysis, call it a set of findings. Make clear who conducted the research, how the analysis was conducted, and with what data. (These three steps would be good for any coverage of an academic study.) Help readers and interested parties put the findings in the context of other findings and ongoing conversations. Just do not suggest that this is a study in the same way that other analyses are studies.

Comparing “five myths about the suburbs” in 2011 and 2020

The Washington Post has a new “five myths about the suburbs” that differs from its 2011 piece by the same name (though a different author). From my 2011 post, here is the older list:

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1. Suburbs are white, middle-class enclaves…

2. Suburbs aren’t cool…

3. Suburbs are a product of the free market…

4. Suburbs are politically conservative…

5. Suburbanites don’t care about the environment…

From the 2020 list:

Suburbs are less dense than cities…

All suburbanites own detached houses…

Suburban workers typically commute to downtown jobs…

Today’s suburbs are racially integrated…

E-commerce killed suburban malls.

There is a lot of overlap between these lists including commentary on class status, who suburban residents are, and what suburban communities are like. There are also differences in the lists: the 2011 list discusses the cool factor and the environmental impact of suburbs while the 2020 list highlights retail.

Even with the overlap, it is notable that myths about suburbia are still viable decades after suburban changes have been in motion. This hints that the image of suburbia is persistent and powerful: the single-family suburban home where a nuclear family pursues the American Dream can still be found in both reality and in cultural productions. But, there is also a another/newer side of suburbia that features new kinds of residents, alternative forms of housing, tougher lives and disillusionment in the supposed land of plenty, and changing everyday life. This sounds like complex suburbia: the suburbs are more varied than the typical image.

Furthermore, there are a number of actors interested in researching and discussing the suburbs of today. From books like Confronting Suburban Poverty to Radical Suburbs to videos, there is still plenty to analyze and learn about in a geographic domain that many think is relatively easy to understand. The suburbs may not appear as exciting as other dynamic locations but with a majority of Americans living in suburban settings, what happens in the suburbs has the potential to shape many lives.

A short overview of recent survey questions about Holocaust knowledge in the US

Although this article leads with recent survey results about what Americans know and think about the Holocaust, I’ll start with the summary of earlier surveys and move forward in time to the recent results:

Whether or not the assumptions in the Claims Conference survey are fair, and how to tell, is at the core of a decades long debate over Holocaust knowledge surveys, which are notoriously difficult to design. In 1994, Roper Starch Worldwide, which conducted a poll for the American Jewish Committee, admitted that its widely publicized Holocaust denial question was “flawed.” Initially, it appeared that 1 in 5, or 22 percent, of Americans thought it was possible the Holocaust never happened. But pollsters later determined that the question—“Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?”—was confusing and biased the sample. In a subsequent Gallup poll, when asked to explain their views on the Holocaust in their own words, “only about 4 percent [of Americans] have real doubts about the Holocaust; the others are just insecure about their historical knowledge or won’t believe anything they have not experienced themselves,” according to an Associated Press report at the time. More recently, the Anti-Defamation League was criticized for a 2014 worldwide study that asked respondents to rate 11 statements—“People hate Jews because of the way they behave, for example”—as “probably true” or “probably false.” If respondents said “probably true” to six or more of the statements, they were considered to harbor anti-Semitic views, a line that many experts said could not adequately represent real beliefs…

Just two years ago, the Claims Conference released another survey of Americans that found “Two-Thirds of Millennials Don’t Know What Auschwitz Is,” as a Washington Post headline summarized it. The New York Times reported on the numbers at the time as proof that the “Holocaust is fading from memory.” Lest it appear the group is singling out Americans, the Claims Conference also released surveys with “stunning” results from Canada, France, and Austria.

But a deeper look at the Claims Conference data, which was collected by the firm Schoen Cooperman Research, reveals methodological choices that conflate specific terms (the ability to ID Auschwitz) and figures (that 6 million Jews were murdered) about the Holocaust with general knowledge of it, and knowledge with attitudes or beliefs toward Jews and Judaism. This is not to discount the real issues of anti-Semitism in the United States. But it is an important reminder that the Claims Conference, which seeks restitution for the victims of Nazi persecution and also to “ensure that future generations learn the lessons of the Holocaust,” is doing its job: generating data and headlines that it hopes will support its worthy cause.

The new Claims Conference survey is actually divided into two, with one set of data from a 1,000-person national survey and another set from 50 state-by-state surveys of 200 people each. In both iterations, the pollsters aimed to assess Holocaust knowledge according to three foundational criteria: the ability to recognize the term the Holocaust, name a concentration camp, and state the number of Jews murdered. The results weren’t great—fully 12 percent of national survey respondents had not or did not think they had heard the term Holocaust—but some of the questions weren’t necessarily written to help respondents succeed. Only 44 percent were “familiar with Auschwitz,” according to the executive summary of the data, but that statistic was determined by an open-ended question: “Can you name any concentration camps, death camps, or ghettos you have heard of?” This type of active, as opposed to passive, recall is not necessarily indicative of real knowledge. The Claims Conference also emphasized that 36 percent of respondents “believe” 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust (the correct answer is 6 million), but respondents were actually given a multiple-choice question with seven options—25,000, 100,000, 1 million, 2 million, 6 million, 20 million, and “not sure”—four of which were lowball figures. (Six million was by far the most common answer, at 37 percent, followed by “not sure.”)

The first example above has made it into research methods textbooks regarding the importance of how survey questions are worded. The ongoing discussion in this article also could illustrate these textbook dialogues: how questions are asked and how the results are interpreted by the researchers are very important.

There are other actors in this process that can help or harm the data interpretation:

  1. Funders/organizations behind the data. What do they do with the results?
  2. How the media reports the information. Do they accurately represent the data? Do they report on how the data was collected and analyzed?
  3. Does the public understand what the data means? Or, do they solely take their cues from the researchers and/or the media reports?
  4. Other researchers who look at the data. Would they measure the topics in the same way and, if not, what might be gained by alternatives?

This all may be boring details to many but going from choosing research topics and developing questions to sharing results with the public and interpretation from others can be a process. The hope is that all of the actors involved can help get as close to what is actually happening – in this case, accurately measuring and reporting attitudes and beliefs.

Collect better data on whether Chicagoans are leaving the city

Even as there are claims 500,000 New Yorkers have left the city, a new article suggests “some” Chicago residents are leaving. The evidence:

Incidents of widespread looting and soaring homicide figures in Chicago have made national news during an already tumultuous year. As a result, some say residents in affluent neighborhoods downtown, and on the North Side, no longer feel safe in the city’s epicenter and are looking to move away. Aldermen say they see their constituents leaving the city, and it’s a concern echoed by some real estate agents and the head of a sizable property management firm.

It’s still too soon to get an accurate measure of an actual shift in population, and such a change could be driven by a number of factors — from restless residents looking for more spacious homes in the suburbs due to COVID-19, to remote work allowing more employees to live anywhere they please…

The day after looting broke out two weeks ago, a Tribune columnist strolled through Gold Coast and Streeterville. Residents of the swanky Near North Side told him they’d be moving “as soon as we can get out.” Others expressed fear of returning downtown in the future.

Rafael Murillo, a licensed real estate broker at Compass whose primary market is downtown high-rises, said he has seen a trend of city dwellers looking to move to the suburbs sooner than initially planned, due in part to the recent unrest in the city.

Three pieces of data I see i this story: aldermen reporting on actions in their districts; journalists talking to some people; and comments from people in the real estate industry. This is not that different than what is being said in New York City (plus information from moving companies).

The caveat that leads the second paragraph above – we do not have an accurate measure yet – may be correct but then it is difficult to square with the rest of the story that suggests “some” people are leaving. What we want to know is the size of this trend. Is this a trickle of people in a city that has been losing people or a recent flood? And if the numbers are larger, what exactly are the motivations of people for leaving (being pushed over the edge, fear, housing values, etc.)?

Someone could find some more certain data. Work with the local utilities to look at usage (or nonusage in units)? Traffic counts? Post office address changes? Triangulate with more data sources? If this is indeed a trend, it is an important one to highlight, explain, and discuss. But, without better data, it is hard to know what to make of it.

Remember the suburban voters in 2020

As COVID-19 and police brutality pushed the 2020 presidential election off the front pages for months, recent poll data suggests suburban voters are breaking one way in national polls:

And while Trump has an edge with rural voters, Biden crushes him in the suburbs – which often decide how swing states swing.

Fifty per cent of suburban registered voters told the pollster they planned to vote for Biden, while 36 per cent said they’d vote for Trump.

And in Texas metropolitan areas:

A Quinnipiac University survey released last week found Trump leading Biden by 1 point in Texas. Trump leads by 2.2 points in the RealClearPolitics average.

Texas Republicans are primarily worried about their standing in the suburbs, where women and independents have steadily gravitated away from the GOP since Trump took office.

Republican support has eroded in the areas surrounding Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, four of the nation’s largest and fastest growing metro areas. Democrats defeated longtime GOP incumbents in Houston and Dallas in 2018.

More background on trying to find a suburban “silent majority”:

The suburbs — not the red, but sparsely populated rural areas of the country most often associated with Trump — are where Trump found the majority of his support in 2016. Yet it was in the suburbs that Democrats built their House majority two years ago in a dramatic midterm repudiation of the Republican president.

Now, Trump’s approach to the violence and unrest that have gripped the nation’s big cities seems calibrated toward winning back those places, in the hopes that voters will recoil at the current images of chaos and looting — as they did in the late 1960s — and look to the White House for stability…

Five months before the general election, according to national polls, the political landscape for Trump is bleak. But there is a clear window of opportunity: Trump remains popular in rural America, and he won the suburbs by 4 percentage points in 2016 — largely on the backs of non-college-educated whites.

There are millions more potential voters where those came from — people who fit in Trump’s demographic sweet spot but did not vote. They live in rural and exurban areas, but also in working class suburbs like Macomb County, outside Detroit. They are who Republicans are referring to when they talk about a new “silent majority” — the kind of potential voters who, even if disgusted by police violence, are not joining in protest.

This probably bears repeating: the American suburbs of today are not solely populated by wealthy, white, conservative voters. This is the era of complex suburbia where different racial and ethnic groups as well as varied social classes live throughout metropolitan regions.

Relatively little media coverage has examined how COVID-19 or police brutality has affected suburbs or how suburbanites feel about all the change. While just over 50% of Americans live in suburbs, coverage emphasized urban areas. And what do suburbanites think when they see these images of urban life, policing, and protest that they may or not understand on an experiential or deeper level?