Numbers to back claims about “SEAL-mania”?

I am often on the look-out for news stories that relate to data analysis and interpretation that I can then use in my Statistics and Social Research classes. Here is an example of the AP reporting on “SEAL-mania”:

Stumpf is one of a growing number of Americans putting themselves through grueling fitness programs modeled after Navy SEAL workouts as interest in the elite military unit has soared since one of its teams killed Osama bin Laden. Everyone these days seems to be dreaming of what it’s like to be a SEAL, know a SEAL or at least look like one.

Book publishers say they cannot order the printings of the memoirs of former SEALs fast enough, while people are dialing 1-800-Hooyah! like mad to get their hands on T-shirts emblazoned with the SEAL insignia and sayings like: “When it absolutely, positively must be destroyed overnight! Call in the US Navy SEALs.”

Awe over the covert operation is even putting the city of Fort Pierce, Fla., on the map for vacation destinations. The city’s National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum — the only museum dedicated to the secretive SEALs — has been flooded with calls from people planning to visit.

But nothing short of joining the SEALs offers a more true-to-life taste of their toughness than the workout places run by ex-Navy commandos.

There may actually be an uptick in interest in Navy SEALS (apparently Disney and others are interested) but the story gives us little actual data to support this. We are told about some books, t-shirts, calls to a museum, and an increase in interest in workouts but no hard numbers to go by. In fact, the story seems to revolve around this tentative sentence: “Everyone these days seems to be dreaming of what it’s like to be a SEAL, know a SEAL or at least look like one.” I am skeptical about claims about “everyone.” The story could at least cite Google trend data (a big spike occurs in early May when searching for “SEALs”) or Twitter trend data (another big spike). These may not be ideal data sources but at least they provide some data beyond broad claims. If a media source wants to make a causal claim (Navy SEALs participation in the Bin Laden raid has led to “SEAL-mania” among Americans), then they should provide some better evidence to back up their argument.

(Another odd thing about this story is that the rest of it is about SEALs workouts. It almost seems as if there was some copy about these workouts waiting to be attached to a larger story and this raid presented itself as an opportunity.)

Patriotism at the Super Bowl

If you want to see what Americans think about their country, sporting events are good places to find out, particularly the Super Bowl, the sporting event of the year.

This year, the pregame featured a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Football players, surrounded by military personnel, read the main parts though we didn’t hear all the grievances regarding the tyranny of the English king. Colin Powell and Roger Goodell finished off the reading.

The two patriotic songs, God Bless America and the Star-Spangled Banner, seemed overwrought. God Bless America had an interesting arrangement at the end while Christiana Aguilera tried her own take on the National Anthem.

Some of this is standard fare at American sporting events. But I’m still trying to figure out how the Declaration of Independence fits with football. It did offer an opportunity to support our military, a cause that often is invoked in big sporting events. But is the idea that because we have freedom and strive for equality as a nation that we therefore should sit together for the next four hours and watch football? Perhaps a little more text could have been added: “We are not red or blue states, Republicans or Democrats: we are united together on this day like no other in our desire to watch football and many commercials.”

This mix of patriotism plus the military plus explicit values plus football seems to have been done in a uniquely American way. The next step sociologically is to discuss this as American civil religion.

What may look like a decent survey is lacking generalizability, military officer edition

The latest issue of Atlantic has an interesting article discussing why a number of US military officers are leaving the military. The argument: the military is too bureaucratic and doesn’t practice meritocracy so the brightest and more entrepreneurial officers leave for other fields.

All of this is interesting but I was struck by the data used for the article. Here is how the author describes the surveys he conducted and draws conclusions from:

In a recent survey I conducted of 250 West Point graduates (sent to the classes of 1989, 1991, 1995, 2000, 2001, and 2004), an astonishing 93 percent believed that half or more of “the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.” By design, I left the definitions of best and early up to the respondents. I conducted the survey from late August to mid-September, reaching graduates through their class scribes (who manage e-mail lists for periodic newsletters). This ensured that the sample included veterans as well as active-duty officers. Among active- duty respondents, 82 percent believed that half or more of the best are leaving. Only 30 percent of the full panel agreed that the military personnel system “does a good job promoting the right officers to General,” and a mere 7 percent agreed that it “does a good job retaining the best leaders.”

This sort of paragraph is very helpful and is toward the front of the story. And the numbers look overwhelming, particularly the first cited figure about 93% believing the best officers leave early.

But there is an issue here: the generalizability of this data. The article suggests surveys were conducted with 250 officers spread across six graduating classes (presumably to help control for time effects). But does this represent West Point graduates on the whole? Does this even represent each graduating class? If one looks at the class page for the graduating class of 2004, there were almost 1,200 entering students. Even if a decent amount leave before graduating, this is a lot more than the 40 or so that would have been surveyed if we had equal representation out of the six graduating classes (250 total surveys divided by six graduate classes).

This does not necessarily mean that these survey results and their interpretation are necessarily wrong. But it should cast doubt: does this survey really speak for all West Point graduates or even more broadly, military officers as a whole? While conducting some sort of survey is better than simply working with anecdotes one hears from officers veterans, this survey could still be improved so that the results could be generalized to all officers. We need a larger N of officers to survey in order to have results that we could really trust.

The home states of military personnel

Richard Florida uses some data to flesh out Defense Secretary Robert Gates recent comment that there is a growing gap between American civilians and the military. Florida suggests part of the issue is the origin of the military personnel: they tend to come from two particular parts of the country.

Aside from relatively high concentrations in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington state, and North Dakota, the military is overwhelmingly concentrated in two distinctive areas of the Sunbelt: The southeast running from Virgina and North Carolina through Kentucky and down through South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi; and the corridor fromTexas through Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming. Texas and California now drop out. The upper mid-west and the northeast, especially New England, which tend to be more liberal and left-leaning than the rest of the nation, have very low concentrations of military personnel.

A couple of thoughts:

1. I don’t think this is terribly surprising (though it is helpful to see it in map form).

2. A question: does the military think it might be worthwhile to try to even out these geographic distributions? If so, how could this be done?

3. Are these differences only due to political views (conservatives vs. liberals) or is this really due to social class?

4. I’m glad Florida added data that accounts for differences in population size – the initial map simply showed more military personnel come from more populous states.

h/t Instapundit

The impact of war on veteran’s job prospects

While time spent in the military can be cast as a good stepping stone to a career or an education, a new study in American Sociological Review argues that veterans who spent time in combat had damaged job prospects for the rest of their lives.

According to Businessweek:

“Veterans who saw combat started their work lives at a relative disadvantage that they were unable to overcome. Soldiers exposed to combat were more likely than non-combat veterans to be disabled and unemployed in their mid-20s and to remain so throughout their worklife,” Alair MacLean, an assistant professor in the sociology department at Washington State University Vancouver, said in an American Sociological Association news release.

MacLean and colleagues analyzed data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a long-term survey of individuals and families conducted annually since 1968. The researchers focused on veterans and non-veterans who would have been between the ages of 25 and 55 in any year between 1968 and 2003…

Combat veterans had higher rates of employment than the other groups in the initial years included in the study but had significantly higher levels of unemployment in most years after 1975.

All in all, evidence of the toll war can exact from those who fight it.