Is America Getting Better or Worse?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

This question comes up repeatedly in one form or another. Politicians will ask you if you are better off now than you were four years ago. The question doesn’t have a good answer, not without some context. The same thing is true of crime, or terrorism, or poverty. Are these things getting better or not? Questions like this might be honest, but don’t assume it. Politicians and pundits might raise one of those questions just to talk about crime getting out of control, immigration getting out of control, the economy is rigged against working people, and so on.

While this article focuses on the obvious country, all of this information applies to any country that has elections. Voters anywhere in the world can run across some dishonest or incompetent discussions of social problems and what to do with them. Every concerned citizen needs to know how to spot this stuff and defend themselves. Indeed, helping out on that front is my main reason for joining Medium. With that in mind, let’s revisit a common theme in the abuse and misuse of language.

Vagueness Helps Sell the Vision

Is the country getting more dangerous? Anyone can string together a number of stories or cherrypick some statistics. Someone who is both intellectually dishonest and lazy might string together some grisly pictures of murder scenes but those scenes don’t tell us anything in general. The crime scenes do illustrate various stories.

Watch out for words like “better” or “worse”. Both words invite cherrypicking and selective memory. You may recall hearing that unemployment is down and homeownership is going up. That makes things seem better. You might also hear a politician say that unemployment is down and violent crime is way down. They are probably cherrypicking things that look good for the party.

If you wanted to know if life was really getting better for Americans or not, you would have to define upfront what “getting better” means, and then look for relevant data. Fortunately, others have done the hard work. All you need to do is look up the numbers. The Human Development Index is an example of using numbers to show how good or bad life is in a country.

One number doesn’t tell the story though. One number is a snapshot of things when who collected the data did that. What about previous years? Has the Human Development Index changed over the past 20 years or whatever?

Whatever. Be careful when a politician or pundit chooses a starting point. Why are we starting 20 years ago? Why not 10 or 12 or 18? In a famous attack on climate change activism, some critics used to say the earth’s average temperature has been declining. How did they do it? They started with an unusually warm year, 1998. If you pick an exceptionally violent year in the United States, you can make people think the country is getting safer. If murders, rapes, and armed robberies are away down since 1997 isn’t that good? Perhaps? But if the rate of violent crime was unusually high that year, the decline in violence might be misleading.

Stories Can Be Abused

I mentioned anti-gun signs before. Picking and choosing what images to show must be part of some course called Tactics of Political Manipulation. You can “prove” anything to people by selected news stories, images, or video clips. You can get more mileage out of anecdotes. Stories about people who defended themselves with guns, or people driven to financial ruin by medical bills are easy to string together. Some people try to make an argument for socialized medicine or against gun control by selecting anecdotes that make that point.

That is not how we should think about social policy. Instead, consider the costs and risks. Consider how common or rare an event really is. Whatever the event is, there are probably statistics you can find. How often do people defend themselves with guns? You can find statistics on that, but they may not be reliable. You can find statistics on wait times in hospitals, bankruptcies caused by medical bills, and so on.

Stories should illustrate a problem, like drug addiction, or unaffordable healthcare. Stories should not be used to “prove” we need cheaper healthcare or more guns or whatever a politician or activist group wants.

Invalid Conclusions are Valid if They Scare People

Quick…how many Democrats want to ban private ownership of firearms? 80%? 30%? Many of them will lie so there’s no way of knowing. How many Republicans want to establish Christianity as the national religion? 80%? 30% Who knows because most of them will lie. Right?

Maybe there is a good survey, a recent one, that covers one or both of those subjects, but I doubt it. You might be conned into overlooking that little problem by YouTube channels and Quora “answers” that show off anti-gun signs photographed at various events. But, can you can’t learn anything about society by looking at some signs that a dozen people chose to carry at various protests. That’s not how scientific thinking works.

For political purposes, scientific thinking about social problems is not important. Or, at least it seems that way.

In Review — Reject Vagueness, Notice Precision

Political discussions aren’t always academic. What people want is not a scholarly analysis of gun violence, but practical knowledge. Is society getting more dangerous or less dangerous? Will I lose my Social Security? Vague claims, anecdotes, and cherrypicked data may look good but they don’t help voters make rational decisions. Politically, this is fine with politicians and activists who all have their own agendas. Sociologically, the public loses by putting more stock in anecdotes than in statistics.

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Chester Davis

Chester Davis

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Sociologist, blogger, and sci-fi writer who cares about sociological thinking, science fiction, sustainability, social change, and nonprofits