Archive for May, 2014

Infotainment Journalism

May 14th, 2014  |  Published in Data, Statistics

We seem, mercifully, to have reached a bit of a backlash to the data journalism/explainer hype typefied by sites like Vox and Fivethirtyeight. Nevertheless, editors in search of viral content find it irresistible to crank out clever articles that purport to illuminate or explain the world with “data”.

Now, I am a big partisan of using quantitative data to understand the world. And I think the hostility to quantification in some parts of the academic Left is often misplaced. But what’s so unfortunate about the wave of shoddy data journalism is that it mostly doesn’t use data as a real tool of empirical inquiry. Instead, data becomes something you sprinkle on top of your substanceless linkbait, giving it the added appearance of having some kind of scientific weight behind it.

Some of the crappiest pop-data science comes in the form of viral maps of various kinds. Ben Blatt at Slate goes over a few of these, pertaining to things like baby names and popular bands. He shows how easy it is to craft misleading maps, even leaving aside the inherent problems with using spatial areas to represent facts about populations that occur in wildly different densities.

Having identified the pitfalls, Blatt then decided to try his hand at making his own viral map. And judging by the number of times I’ve seen his maps of the most widely spoken language in each state on Facebook, he succeeded. But in what is either a sophisticated troll or an example of “knowing too little to know what you don’t know”, Blatt’s maps themselves are pretty uninformative and misleading.

The post consists of several maps. The first simply categorizes each state according to the most commonly spoken non-English language, which is almost always Spanish. Blatt calls this map “not too interesting”, but I’d say it’s the best of the bunch. It’s the least misleading while still containing some useful information about the French-speaking clusters in the Northeast and Louisiana, and the holdout German speakers in North Dakota.

The next map, which shows the most common non-English and non-Spanish language, is also decent. It’s when he starts getting down into more and more detailed subcategories that Blatt really gets into trouble. I’ll illustrate this with the most egregious example, the map of “Most Commonly Spoken Native American Language”.

Part of the problem is the familiar statistician’s issue of sample size. The American Community Survey data that Blatt used to make his maps is extremely large, but you can still run into trouble when you’re looking at a small population and dividing it up into 50 states. Native Americans are a tiny part of the population, and those who speak an indigenous language are an even smaller fraction. The more severe issue, though, is that this map would be misleading even if it were based on a complete census of the population.

That’s because the Native American population in the United States is extremely unevenly distributed, due to the way in which the American colonial project of genocide and resettlement played out historically. In some areas, like the southwest and Alaska, there are sizable populations. In much of the east of the country, there are vanishingly small populations of people who still speak Native American languages. And without even going to the original data (although I did do that), you can see that there are some things majorly wrong here. But you need a passing familiarity with the indigenous language families of North America, which is basically what I have from a cursory study of them as a linguistics major over a decade ago.

We see that Navajo is the most commonly spoken native language in New Mexico. That’s a fairly interesting fact, as it reflects a sizeable population of around 63,000 speakers. But then, we could have seen that already from the previous “non-English and Spanish speakers” map.

But now look at the northeast. We find that the most commonly spoken native language in New Hampshire is Hopi; in Connecticut it’s Navajo; in New Jersey it’s Sahaptian. What does this tell us? The answer is, approximately nothing. The Navajo and Hopi languages originate in the southwest, and the Sahaptian languages in the Pacific northwest, so these values just reflect a handful of people who moved to the east coast for whatever reason. And a handful of people it is: do we really learn anything from the fact there are 36 Hopi speakers in New Hampshire, compared to only 24 speaking Muskogee (which originates in the south)? That is, if we could even know these were the right numbers. The standard errors on these estimates are larger than the estimates themselves, meaning that there is a very good chance that Muskogee, or some other language, is actually the most common native language in New Hampshire.

I suppose this could be regarded as nitpicking, as could the similar things I could say about some of the other maps. Boy, finding out about those 170 Gujurati speakers in Wyoming sure shows me what sets that state apart from its neighbors! OMG, the few hundred Norwegian speakers in Hawaii might slightly outnumber the Swedish speakers! (Or not.) Even the “non-English and Spanish” map, which I generally kind of like, doesn’t quite say as much as it appears—or at least not what it appears to say. The large “German belt” in the plains and mountain west reflects low linguistic diversity more than a preponderance of Krauts. There is a small group of German speakers almost everywhere; in most of these states, the percentage of German speakers isn’t much greater than the national average, which is well under 1 percent. In some, like Idaho and Tennessee, it’s actually lower.

I belabor all this because I take data analysis seriously. The processing and presentation of quantitative data is a key way that facts are manufactured, a source of things people “know” about the world. So it bothers me to see the discursive pollution of things that are essentially vacuous “infotainment” dressed up in fancy terms like “data science” and “data journalism”. I mean, I get it: it’s fun to play with data and make maps! I just wish people would leave their experiments on their hard drives rather than setting them loose onto Facebook where they can mislead the unwary.

Adjusting to the Apocalypse

May 13th, 2014  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics

The news that a section of the West Antarctica ice sheet is now irreversibly melting into the ocean is awesome and terrifying. As a vivid illustration of the scale of climate change, it merits the aghast reactions that I’ve seen from the lefties around me.

Yet I can’t help but think about what I wrote recently, about another prediction of ecologically driven disaster. That prediction of civilizational collapse turned out to be based on tendentious speculation, while the findings about the Antarctic ice are the product of extended research by two separate teams of serious researchers. So in this case, it’s tremendously valuable to know what’s happening no matter what the political impacts are.

But I once again wonder if the publicity around these findings will wind up doing much good. It certainly could, if the combined enormity and easy comprehensibility of this new finding gets more people to take climate change seriously.

Yet I fear it will, instead, mostly be taken up by people who already make “being very serious about climate change” a significant part of their identity. And if the news is read in an apocalyptic way, it can as easily breed fatalism as political will.

While the irreversible nature of the melting ice sheet is touted above all else, just as important is the time scale over which it will unfold. The rise in sea levels, which could be five feet, ten feet, or even more, will occur over the span of a century or more. From the New York Times article:

The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the 21st century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly, potentially throwing society into crisis.

While 100 years is an infinitesimal amount of time in geological terms—hence what makes the phenomenon so shocking and important—it is nevertheless an extremely long time in the context of an industrialized human society. It’s hard to imagine human society dealing with environmental changes of this magnitude, but perhaps no more so than picturing the regimes of 1914 reckoning with the upheavals of the past century.

Societies will adapt, even if those adaptations will entail enormous expenses and dislocations. And indeed, adaptation is already happening. This mostly doesn’t mean fanciful geoengineering schemes, but rather things like the secretary of Housing and Urban Development working with a water management expert to bring Dutch water-control techniques to the United States, or congress debating the impacts of flood insurance policy on low income homeowners.

It’s true, as Matt Karp writes at Jacobin, that overturning the fossil fuel-based economy will require a monumental political struggle and a massive redistribution of wealth. But we should not think merely in terms of an epochal battle to either defeat Big Oil and “save the planet” or else perish. Equally important is to contest the adjustments and adaptations that we now know must be made, even if we could somehow decarbonize the economy tomorrow.

These adaptations will impose costs and burdens, and the ruling class will do what it can to impose those burdens on those who can least bear them. In other words, the politics of climate change are and will continue to be intertwined with class struggle across all domains, not just in the fight against the fossil fuel industry. I believe, of course, that socialism is also the best answer to the ecological crisis. But I also agree with Christian Parenti that “in the short-term, realistic climate politics are reformist politics, even if they are conceived of as part of a longer-term anti-capitalist project of totally economic re-organization.”

To me, Marco Rubio’s climate change denialism and Obama’s dithering over the Keystone pipeline are at least as terrifying as the latest word from Antarctica. As is the rise of a climate apartheid that allows the rich to evade the consequences of a warming world. Fortunately, our immediate political obstacles, unlike the movements of the glaciers, are at least potentially susceptible to change through collective action.