I 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.