Sunday, November 06, 2005

Culture Wars and Journalists

Every now and then, normally when some expert has a new book to sell, we hear about some "culture war" that is supposed to be going on as we speak. We're told that this is new and unprecedented, that it shows how polarized we are, etc., etc.

Mo Fiorina wrote a very good book arguing, using (gasp!) social science (opinion polls, surveys, election studies, etc.) that the journalists and talking heads are wrong. In fact, his results are bound to make bad copy and bound to undermine the he said/she said format upon which media relies: we are, by and large, all wishy-washy fencesitters on most issues.

Never daunted by evidence against poorly selected anecdotes, the media charges on - no matter how good things may be, we're assured every few weeks or months, depending on whether American Idol is distracting us, some new outrage occurs that just goes to show how bad things are, and then the usual suspects come out and blame the usual causes. It's sort of a silly spectacle, given the fact that it was during the Clinton years that so many of the indices that we would expect to see going up during cultural decline actually went down.

The latest installment - sex in schools! Sex in schools! Won't someone think about the children?

Students - mostly high school, it seems - are having sex in schools at what is surely a high and unprecedented rate!

But wait - "Actually, it's not so new. According to some teenagers, sex on school property is more frequent than adults might imagine. And some adults who work with teenagers said it's happening more often these days.

There's anecdotal evidence to support that."

Really? What evidence? I read through the article, which had FOUR AUTHORS, plus a researcher, and here's the evidence I saw: 5 instances throughout the DC metro area over what they present as 2 years, involving a total of 18 students at 5 different high schools. I have neither the time nor the inclination to calculate how many high schools and high school students there are in the DC metro area, and even if we grant, pretty generously, that they only found out 1/10 of the number of instances (let's say there were 50 instances involving 180 students), I have a tough time getting riled up at what by any reasonable measure is statistically insignificant. It is hardly the "trend" they say it is. In fact, without actually doing, you know, research, into the number of instances reported over a time period (how you calculate trends) we can't say anything about it except that over the last 2 years, 5 instances were reported involving 18 students. We can't say it's going up, going down, or staying constant - we can't, literally, say anything.

But I'm sure we could say things about other statistically measurable phenomena. For instance, students getting hit by cars. How many high school students were hit by cars in the same time period? Surely more, and surely a less clumpy distribution - there's a high school student getting it by cars crisis! With a pretty low effort, obituaries in a newspaper - say, the Washington Post - could be culled for a period of time - say, 10 years - instances could be counted, trends observed, and better yet, we could calculate if the variation had anything to do with other variables.

I guess this is asking a lot of a team of four journalists and a researcher. Not like they get paid to do this stuff.

Four authors and one researcher, and that's your evidence? Please. If this were an undergraduate paper in a stats or political science course, I couldn't see it getting more than a C based on argument and evaluation of evidence.

So what are we supposed to take from this? Well, we feel righteous indignation, we feel angry, we demand results and accountability, we get something to talk about, but most of all, we get titillated, and have some sense of controversy and excitement in what are our (speaking as the Post's general readership), in fact, pretty safe, tame, and predictable lives. What we don't get is anything resembling actual evidence that this in any way a problem apart from an extremely small and hardly widespread non-random sampling over a two year period.

But this is just the sort of thing that feeds the culture war imbeciles - John Leo, for instance, Novak on occasion, and even, on occasion, the illustrious David Brooks.

So be afraid, very afraid! Now they're having sex in high school, next they'll be worshipping the devil and sniffing glue!

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