Monday, October 12, 2015

Demographics: Lies, Damned Lies and the Blue Line

The_Normal_DistributionI have always felt that there were three prevailing dispositions towards statistics: professional – by those who know how to use statistics and do so legitimately; political – by those who use (or typically misuse) them for propaganda; and cynics. Cynics have an attitude toward statistics best captured by the aphorism popularized by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

As a mathematics teacher I find this cynical attitude hard to resist. And why not? In modern society the abuse of statistics has become ubiquitous. The disingenuous and even dangerous intersection of legitimate statistical study – say, for example, demographics – and their political misappropriation is apparently too tempting for anyone to resist. When that comes to something as regionally important as the changing demographics in the Adirondack Park, this disconnect is terribly unfortunate. We need ideas grounded in reality, not rhetoric. We need strategies for bettering the Park based upon a deep understanding of causes and trends, not talking points that cherry-pick data or even ignore causes altogether.

Enter the Adirondack Research Consortium’s (ARC) 2015 Fall Workshop, Demographic Trends in the Adirondacks, sponsored jointly with the Rockefeller Institute of Government and recently held in Albany. Dr. Warren Brown, Director of Applied Demographics at Cornell University, and Cornell Research Specialist Jan Vink, gave short presentations on “Demographic Trends in Rural America and What the Research is Indicating in the Adirondacks.” This was followed by a presentation on school enrollments in the Park given by Brad Dake, who chaired the 2009 Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project (APRAP) report Seeking Balance, as well as its 2014 update.

I attended this workshop and applaud the ARC for holding it. The ARC describes their mission this way:

“…to bring together scientists from research organizations and people who work to make the Park a better place, such as business owners, local and State governments, private land managers, farmers, foresters, teachers, and interested citizens. We partner researchers with decision-makers to make sure good science is being used to answer real questions.”

Given the lofty position that posturing and rhetoric have held in Adirondack discussions for more than a century, this strikes me as a vital mission. The call to “make sure good science is being used to answer real questions” is what we need perhaps more than anything else around here. It speaks directly to the importance of legitimately using statistics to understand the causes of and variances in complicated issues such as the loss of working-age populations in the Park, or declining school enrollments. This need was on full display at the workshop.

Messrs. Vink and Brown presented some interesting macroscopic demographics – primarily national measurements of non-metropolitan areas – that clearly showed a trend of out-migration of young adults from rural areas, coupled with an increase in the median age. For example, the median age in year 2000 for such areas was 39.5 years. In 2010 it was 45.0 years. In 2020 it is projected to be 48.9 years. That’s a strong trend.

The Adirondack region shows the same trends. Dr. Brown showed a graphic of three Adirondack counties – Essex, Hamilton and Warren – that showed different flavors of the same out-migration and median age increase seen nationally. Mr. Dake (who painstakingly counted school populations throughout the Park, going as far as to visit and walk every one of the 32 districts that are bisected by the famed Blue Line in order to accurately subdivide and count the numbers) followed with data on school enrollments that showed a dramatic decline, consistent with these overall trends.

But what is causing these declines in the Adirondack Park? That’s a much harder question, of course, and it calls for much more demographic research, as Dr. Brown himself pointed out. Brown and Vink both cited the influence of the Baby Boom, but were clear that how much of the change is accounted for by that alone cannot be definitively concluded from their data. The truth is we just don’t know all the causes. We need a lot more inquiry. That’s why I wrote the ARC immediately after the conference, applauding them for this workshop and urging them to keep sponsoring more detailed statistical research into Adirondack populations.

In the absence of scientific understanding of the causes, politics and posturing rushed in to fill the vacuum. A panel was convened after the demographic presentations and the conversation quickly settled into the familiar tropes of environment versus business, state regulation versus economic freedom, even the Adirondack Club and Resort versus extremists. Demographics were wielded like blunt instruments to make points for one side or the other, usually without any causal connection or logic.

For example, the Blue Line itself became a demographic star. It was pointed out by more than a few that life just inside the Blue Line is very different from life outside the Blue Line. I’ll buy that, but is that difference due to government regulations, anti-business policies and environmental excesses? The political statements from some on the panel were fashioned to infer as much – or even outright say so. But there is no science or logic that can make such a leap from effects to causes. There is no data to support that contention, certainly not in the material presented earlier that day – ask the experts, they were there. Nor is there any sound logic to those kinds of inferences. The mathematician in me wanted to interject “How about the possibility that the difference between demographics inside versus outside the Blue Line is an artifact of the Blue Line, the obvious result of the choices that were made as to where to locate it?” That kind of logic went missing… and with it any meaningful discussion of these very important statistics.

I’m thinking a lot about those school enrollment numbers right now. I have a lot of sympathy for Mr. Dake’s passion over the issue. I think he’s spot on and I admire his work ethic. I myself wrote about school demographics in my series of columns on the importance of diversity to the future of the Park. Declining school enrollments represent a very serious problem for the Adirondacks. The harm they cause is unfair to the people who live here. It is therefore all the more incumbent upon us that we delve into a deeper and more urgent inquiry about the causes. Some may think the causes self-evident but any social scientist will tell you that it is actually an extremely complicated problem.

When trying to face such a problem, facile, postured use of statistics does no one any favors. Most Americans have all but been inured to the importance of statistics by an onslaught of misuse that makes Mark Twain look like a latter-day Socrates. But statistics aren’t lies; they’re a crucial tool of science. The lies come from other sources.

So “Go ARC!” I say! Keep pushing for this kind of research. For the benefit of the people of the Adirondacks – not to mention the environment, of which people are an indivisible part – we need a lot more science and a lot less politics.

Photograph:  the Normal Distribution, cornerstone of statistics.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

24 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    The demographics only tell us what is happening not why it is happening. And even once you have a very strong correlation it is not causation. We have to decide at what point we have enough information that we might want to make this choice or that choice.

    Pete, at what point do you think we will have the necessary data to see a strong correlation regarding adirondack demographic trends and the possible causes that are responsible for the trends?

  2. joe says:

    What policy changes might you suggest? Sounds like nothing mentioned caught your eye. Your thoughts?

  3. Tim says:

    Good to see you back, Pete. I’ve missed your blog.
    As for demographics, could it be as simple as young people want to get the heck out of Dodge, go somewhere more “exciting,” have kids, and then return to the Adirondacks when they retire? Is there anything wrong with that?

    • Pete Nelson says:


      I think that very likely and there’s nothing wrong with that. Certainly there can be no wrong ascribed to anyone’s decision to leave or stay. But the effect is still deleterious to Adirondack Communities.

  4. Martin V. Lavin says:

    Yes, Pete, we certainly can wind ourselves into pretzels over this condition. But while you are wringing your hands and trying to reach a conclusion that the regulatory burden in the Park is not to blame, too easy, you might remember two salient sayings:

    1. Res ipsa loquitar- let the results speak for themselves.

    2. You get more of what you encourage and less of what you discourage. The Park encourages wild forever. Wild means no people. So regulations are put in place to restrain people’s activity, This restraint affects; people’s ability to make a living. Making a living in the Park is generally more difficult than outside, so people not being stupid in a mobile, modern world, leave. Why is more study needed? Slowly the park returns to its original aim as ever more economic handcuffs are placed, and people leave. I know, I know, you don’t want to hear that.

    But, Pete, you should be celebrating. You and your friends are ever closer to what you want: no people in the Park save the privilidged few. Rejoice.

    • Bellota says:

      I think the issue of population decline is very simple. Either unfettered development is allowed or it is restricted within the Adirondack Park. If restricted as development is currently then you have out migration. I believe migration has been a part of the human experience since humans have existed. Does this simple fact require so much studying?

      • Bill Quinlivan says:

        In the 21st Century, we do not need to have an all or nothing approach to development. We have the means to strategically build clean bandwidth infrastructure and strategically target and build park-friendly development that increases the propensity to appeal to young professionals that want to work at clean businesses and be in close proximity to everything our wild areas have to offer — right at their back door.

        • Bellota says:

          The term “park-friendly development” is vague. To me it is ominous. I’ve been to the Pyrenees and the telecommunication towers in France and Spain have marred the beauty of those mountains.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Gee, Martin, you know me so well.

      Either that or something else: the possibility that you have not only failed to actually read this article, but also anything else I’ve written over my years here on the Almanack.

      Or perhaps it is simply that the difference between you and me is that I refuse to play the same old lazy games we play here in the park, while you seem perfectly happy doing so.

  5. Curt Austin says:

    I agree with all your observations, Pete. My first career included doing a lot of statistics and data exploration. The context was improving a complicated engineering system, so complicated that there would never be enough data to understand it completely. While scientists can wait at a fork in the road and study the situation as long as they wish, engineers must keep moving; often, that means sending people in both directions.

    I’m just saying this to counter the possible perception that you are calling for more study before acting. Three-sigma certainty is going to prove elusive.

    I often suggest to folks in my community (defined best by our school district) that actions should be taken that have the potential of increasing school enrollment. Actions that attract visitors have that potential, but rather indirectly. Worth doing, but how about things that directly attract families to live here? Or keep them from leaving? Or encouraging seasonal residents to stay longer? We have businesses here whose owners and employees live elsewhere – that’s an easy thing to study: ask them why.

    To cite a self-serving example, Warren County’s railroad is a tourist attraction, while a multi-use trail will also attract residents. I have other examples. Consolidate our three small libraries – that’s a lot for just 5000 people – into one big one. Grease the skids to attract a better supermarket. Do some smart development for one of our major assets – Exit 25.

    The principle guesswork here is about where the future is naturally taking us, encouraging the good parts (e.g.,tele-commuting), not fighting the inevitable (cell phone towers), and discouraging the ugly parts (haphazard “Dollar Store” stuff”.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Good points, Curt. I certainly am not calling for study rather than action. This is social policy, not science. We can act and learn all at once. However, there is a place for analysis and logic help our motivations, instead of mere rhetoric.

  6. Bruce says:

    It’s unfortunate causation’s didn’t seem to be very evident at this workshop. I have to ask why, when young people leaving rural areas is not a new phenomenon.

    One reason which comes to mind is when parents of these young people have not established or have been carrying on a successful local business which the children can move into, such as a working farm, timber business, lumber yard, restaurant, or perhaps even rentals. If parents feel it’s necessary to go outside the Blue Line for work, it seems natural the children are going to follow, perhaps moving out of the park altogether.

    I’m personally acquainted with one of those children who successfully operates a camp rental business started and built in 1936 by his father. Many of the old family-owned rental camps have been taken over by outside corporations. Having stayed at this camp each of the last 6 years, I can see how government regulation (not necessarily a bad thing), and routine maintenance are putting a strain on the business.

    I suspect when my friend is too old to keep up with all the details of operating this very pleasant family camp, (now in his 50’s) it too will go the way of others. In fact, he’s already establishing himself close to where I live, partly because winter is more amenable. There are no children to carry on.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    You didn’t mention it but I would be interested to known if there was any comparison of the economics between the Adirondacks and the Southern Tier.
    I’ll hazard the guess that economically speaking the average year-round resident in the Adirondacks is better off than the average year-round resident in the Southern Tier.
    I do believe the exodus of the young from rural areas to more urban areas has much to do with both the search for a variety of jobs and the search for a suitable mate. The pickings are small in rural areas for both jobs and mates and Farmers only .com is not a solution.

  8. Bill Quinlivan says:

    I will be the first to admit that what I am about to say is really based upon observation filtered through a long, successful career in identifying problems for clients and building strategies that turned their problems around. I am not sure that the Adirondack Demographic “writing on the wall” has the benefit of waiting for more research before real solution building action begins to take place. My observation is that the one area that is a “no-brainer” toward a solution is to quickly establish real bandwidth capability THROUGHOUT the park and begin promoting the area as a place to establish clean service oriented businesses and thus building job resources for young people to stay, to move here and raise families. The types of businesses to be targeted should be professional writers, accountants, medical billing, transcription services, graphic design, film/video producers and directors, etc. All clean businesses that do not conflict with the environmental aspects of this huge experiment called the Adirondacks. All of these business need reliable bandwidth to enable them to work at a distance from their client/market stakeholders. If this were meaningfully undertaken by both State and Local governments, we would begin to build a base of positively altered demographics that would establish a foothold upon which to turn our towns around and build a young population of professionals that would have the propensity to respect and enjoy working and living within this unique place we call the Adirondack Park. It is not the total answer, but it would be a positive start, but the bandwidth would have to be everywhere within the park to enable it to benefit the entire region and not just the larger areas of Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, etc. and we would need a competitive environment with multiple bandwidth suppliers to help assure start up business friendly rates. The State could help here by telling providers within the State that they cover the Adirondack Region or they cover nothing within the State. Bottom line is that we cannot hold up action on obvious opportunities until more research is undertaken. Research should indeed continue, but let’s get going on the no-brainer areas.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Per my comments to Curt above, I agree with this, Bruce. Thanks for the contribution.

      • Bruce says:

        Thanks Pete,

        You said that folks living in the Adirondacks may be better off than those in the Southern Tier. Do you think one reason might be the scarcity of public employment inside the Blue Line? I’m thinking that Adirondackers generally might have learned to be more self-sufficient, not depending on someone else for employment.

        Based on my readings about Adirondack people since the late 1800’s, there seems to be more of a do it yourself attitude when it came to making a living. The person I referred to in my other comment who started a rental camp in 1935, was a logger and owned a sawmill. Another I read about was a self-employed builder. In the early part of the 20th Century, many were independent guides and boat builders.

        There is an amusing story about this camp I referred to. As I said, the man logged and ran a sawmill. He would design his camp buildings, cut the lumber to size and tell his wife where and how to put it up. She and her older children would actually do most of the building while he was working elsewhere. I got that straight from her mouth the year before she died at age 96 or 97.

        Adirondackers are a tough lot, they did what they had to in order to keep things going.

  9. Bob Meyer says:

    Pete, Once again you are the voice of reason in a sea of agenda driven confusion.
    Keep on and THANKS!

  10. Population trends in the Park compare favorably (assuming you think rising population is favorable) to comparable rural areas of New York outside the Blue Line. Slow growth is still growth and that’s better than what most of rural New York is experiencing.

  11. Pete Klein says:

    On other point about the young moving out from rural areas to urban areas.
    More and more of our high school graduates are going on to two and four year colleges where they meet young people from out of the area and even out of the state and out of the country. This is a good thing and we should be proud they are getting a good education. But this does result in job choices not available in rural areas and sometimes results in marrying someone who puts a good job ahead of living in the Adirondacks or any other rural area.

  12. Paul says:

    What would happen to some of the parks larger towns if these things happened:

    The prisons in Ray Brook were to close or move
    Clinton Correctional was to close or move
    The Trudeau Institute were to close or move
    Sunmount were to close or move
    Paul Smith’s College goes bankrupt

    This area is so vulnerable to a major collapse just based on a short list of things that are not that hard to imagine happening. The entire economy is based on very thin ice if you ask me.

    Tourism is not the major economic engine for most of the [ark.

  13. Paul says:

    Doesn’t sound like North Country College is doing too well either. This from NCPR:

    “Enrollment at all three campuses is down by a third over the last four years, including a 13 percent drop this year. College officials noted other community colleges in the region have also seen a drop in enrollment. Despite last year’s budget reduction efforts, the college faces a $1 million deficit and a declining fund balance. There is talk of more budget cuts and possible layoffs.”

    People who seem to think things are going well seem like folks who are whistling on the way to the graveyard.

  14. Dave Gibson says:

    Thank you, Pete, for showing up at this event, and for your articulate, provocative commentary. And for your fair appraisal of some of the event participants, who indeed have devoted great blocks of their time to analyzing the real, troubling decline in small-town grade/high school-age populations and their parents, and aging in place and other factors that lead to an older populations. At any one event, in the absence of interpreted research into the causation for these changes, prejudices often seek to substitute for explanation. I encouraged the workshop sponsors to consider hosting one of the authors of this paper to participate. Perhaps they were unavailable. At any rate, I find the paper “Adirondack Park Regional Assessment: An Appraisal” by Kenneth Strike and Lorraine Duvall to be helpful reading to explain some of the trends that were discussed at the workshop. To find the report, go to

  15. Mike says:

    It really is as simple as Tim mentions early on, and it’s not likely to change. Holding conferences about it though interesting I’m sure, won’t do anything to change that. It is innate human nature to leave one area for what is perceived as better opportunity elsewhere.

    Over the last 40 years the Adirondacks has become an area that does not provide much if any significant economic opportunity for younger people that are desirous of upward economic mobility. While it has many wonderful things going for it, for the most part career opportunities for a person in their 20’s is not among them.

    From what I’ve seen the schools are good, the students go off to college, and are well prepared to begin a career. Which if they wish to do that requires most of them to go elsewhere, to more populated areas, where there are job and career options that they wish to pursue. That very thing happens everywhere in this country. People grow up in one area, go to college and for the most part a job or relationship takes them somewhere else and they do not return to live in their hometown. Perhaps many of you have done the same thing in your life at one time or another? I certainly have. The difference with the Adirondacks as compared to other areas is that because there is so little economic opportunity, there aren’t many (any?)young folks moving in, to replace the ones that leave.

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