No, there is no epidemic of loneliness. (Or, Dog Bites Man: David Brooks runs another column based on fake stats)

May 16, 2018

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

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Remember David Brooks? The NYT columnist, NPR darling, and former reporter who couldn’t correctly report the price of a meal at Red Lobster? The guy who got it wrong about where billionaires come from and who thought it was fun to use one of his columns to make fun of a urologist (ha ha! Get it?) who had the misfortune to have the New York Times announce his daughter’s wedding announcement to (“exactly the sort of son-in-law that pediatric urologists dream about” — yeah, nice one, Dave! You sound like a real man of the people here)? The dude who thinks that staying out of jail is a conservative value? Who got conned into mainstreaming some erroneous calculations on high school achievement and college admissions and then never corrected himself? Etc? Etc?

And who never backs down. (The closest to admission of error was a characterization of his Red Lobster statement as a joke (as one reporter put it, a “comedic riff“), which I guess could describe his entire career.)

Well, it turns out he published some more fake stats in his column.

I know, I know, it’s no surprise. Still perhaps worth talking about, as an example of our degraded news media environment.

The story comes from sociologist David Weakliem, via sociologist Jay Livingston and sociologist Claude Fischer. (It’s been a busy week here for sociology.)

Here’s Weakliem:

A couple of days ago, David Brooks had a column in which he wrote “In the 1980s, 20 percent of Americans said they were often lonely. Now it’s 40 percent.” . . . The source of the 40% figure seems to be a survey of people aged 45 and over sponsored by the AARP in 2010. However, the report of that survey didn’t say anything about changes in loneliness.

So then Weakliem looks up loneliness directly:

There is a question that has been asked in a number of surveys asking people if they had felt “very lonely or remote from other people” in the past few weeks. The percent saying they had:

Nov 1963 28%
June 1965 26%
Jan 1981 17%
May 1990 19%
Sept 2001 26%
Dec 2001 24%

That doesn’t look like any kind of trend. The numbers in the 1981 and 1990 are lower, but they were in surveys taken by Gallup, and the others were by NORC, so that may be a factor. Unfortunately, the question hasn’t been asked since 2001.

Anything else?

I [Weakliem] searched Google scholar for papers about trends in loneliness, and found one from 2014 entitled “Declining Loneliness Over Time: Evidence From American Colleges and High Schools”. It was based on surveys at various colleges and universities and on the Monitoring the Future Survey, a representative survey of high school students that has been conducted since the 1970. It mentioned that other literature claimed that loneliness had increased, but I checked the sources they cited and they didn’t provide any evidence—they just said it had, or cited research that wasn’t really relevant.

Weakliem summarizes:

It’s remarkable that online editions of newspapers and magazines haven’t developed reasonable conventions about when to include links to a source. I checked five or six articles, all in well-regarded publications, which included the claim that levels of loneliness had doubled. Only one provided a link: that was to the AARP survey report, which didn’t support the claim.

Perhaps one reason they don’t link is because, with the link, you could check the claim. Brooks supplies no link, hence he can claim just about anything he wants. The non-linking thing also seems to be a general issue with journalism: everything has to be a “scoop,” so newspapers and magazines rarely point to earlier reporting on a topic. Newspaper A breaks a story, then when newspaper B follows up, it’s typical for them to never mention that the topic was first covered in newspaper A.

To return to the question of the supposed loneliness epidemic, here’s Claude Fisher, who’s been writing about these misconceptions for at least six years:

Yes, loneliness is a social problem, but no, there is no “epidemic of loneliness.” . . .

First, distinctions are needed. At least three different topics get conflated in the media these days: feeling lonely, being socially isolated, and using new social media. They are not the same things. It is well known in the research, for example, that socially isolated people are likelier to report feeling lonely than others do—but not much likelier. So, this post just addresses feelings of loneliness; other posts have addressed isolation and others the effects of the internet.

Weakliem found some long-term National Opinion Research Center data . . . I [Fischer] reported similar fragments of data about loneliness in my book . . . with the same conclusion: No sign of a trend.

But, wait! There’s more: A 2015 study found that in college samples and more importantly, among high school students in the several decades-long Monitoring the Future project, there was a slight decline in reports of loneliness from the 1980s to 2010. Flat would be a close enough summary.

It’s funny—Brooks is on record saying that technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook and can be learned by rote.

The guy lacks the most basic technical knowledge—the ability to read a publication—or a menu!—and accurately report the numbers he sees. I guess he and his New York Times editors excuse him on this on the grounds that nobody ever gave him the cookbook.

Too bad Brooks can’t afford a research assistant who could google his more ridiculous claims. I guess the Times doesn’t pay him enough for that.

It’s funny that the newspaper can’t just run a correction note every time one of its columnists reports something demonstrably false.

When it comes to NYT corrections, my favorite remains this one:

An earlier version of this column misstated the location of a statue in Washington that depicts a rambunctious horse being reined in by a muscular man. The sculpture, Michael Lantz’s ‘Man Controlling Trade’ (1942), is outside the Federal Trade Commission, not the Department of Labor.

With important items like this to run, you can see how the newspaper would have no space to correct mangled statistics.

Who Cares?

Fischer summarizes:

A layperson might ask, What difference—besides diss’ing social scientists—does it make if these interesting articles about loneliness growing are off a bit? First, they are off a lot. But more important, they are a critical distraction. Chatter about feelings (of mainly affluent folks) distracts us from the many real crises of our time—say, widened inequality, children growing up in criminally and chemically dangerous neighborhoods, the dissolution of job security for middle Americans, drug addiction, housing shortages (where the jobs are), a medical system mess, hyper-partisanship, and so on. That’s what makes the loneliness scare not just annoying but also another drag on serious problem-solving.

I’d just say “dissing,” not “diss’ing,” but otherwise I completely agree. Fake social science crap in the NYT, NPR, Ted, etc., sucks away attention from real issues. In the case of Brooks, this distraction may be intentional: “loneliness” is a kind of soft problem, not directly addressed by taxation. More generally, though, I suspect that it’s simple ignorance. Working with numbers is hard. And that’s ok—not everyone has to be a sociologist or a statistician! And reporters make mistakes; that’s inevitable. But if you are a reporter and you do promulgate an error, you should be working extra hard to correct it. Your mess, you clean it up.

P.S. I suppose it would be better for my future media relations if I were to go easy on Brooks: after all, he writes for the Times (where I sometimes write), he has lots of powerful friends, etc. But . . . grrrrrr . . . it really annoys me when people garble the numbers. We’re not talking about David Sedaris here, who’s a humorist and is understood to be joking, exaggerating, and flat-out making things up in order to tell a story. Brooks is purporting to report on social science. When his numbers are completely wrong—as in this case and many others—it completely destroys his point. And it’s insulting to the many researchers who’ve bothered to study the topic more seriously. So, no, I’m not gonna go easy on the guy just to avoid burning bridges in the media.

Again: all of Brooks’s published errors may well have been honest mistakes. Not correcting any of these errors, though? That’s on him.

And the whole thing is so sad—it just makes me want to cry—in that it would be so easy for him to run corrections for his errors. But, like White House social media director Dan Scavino, he just doesn’t go in for that sort of thing.

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