In responding to some recent blog comments I noticed an overlap among our two most recent posts:
2. When does research have active opposition?
The first post was all about the fascinating patterns you can find by analyzing and graphing data from the CDC Wonder website, which has information on all the deaths in the United States over a fifteen-year period. The post was motivated by the release of a new article by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who pulled out a few things from these data and, from this, spun a media-friendly story of the struggle of white Americans. In that post, I emphasized that I think Case and Deaton’s work has positive value and that I hope journalists will use that work as a starting point to explore these questions more deeply by interviewing knowledgeable actuaries, demographers, and public health experts.
The second post explored how it was that now-disgraced eating-behavior researcher Brian Wansink managed to stay at the top of the heap, maintaining media exposure, government grants, and policy influence for something like 10 years even while his sloppy research practices were all in plain sight, as it were, in his published work. In that post I suggest one reason that Wansink stayed afloat all this time was that his claims were pretty much innocuous, and he was working in a noncompetitive field, so there was nobody out there with any motivation to examine his work with a critical eye.
And here’s the mash-up: Case and Deaton are writing about an important topic—mortality trends!—but their message is basically simpatico to all parts of the political spectrum. Struggling working-class white people, that’s a story that both left and right can get behind. There’s nobody on the other side!
Indeed, when the original Case/Deaton story came out a bit over a year ago, it was framed by many as an increase in the death rate of middle-aged white men, because that was what everyone was expecting to hear—even though the actual data (when correctly age-adjusted) showed a decrease in the death rate of middle-aged white men in recent years (the increase was only among women), and even though Case and Deaton themselves never claimed that anything was happening with men in particular.
The news media—left, right, and center—had a pre-existing narrative of middle-aged white malaise, and they slotted the Case and Deaton reports into that narrative.
Why did the media not interview any questioning voices? Why did we not hear from actuaries, demographers, and public health experts with other takes on the matter? Why no alternative perspectives? Because there was no natural opposition.
And it does seem that the news media need opposition, not just other perspectives. After the original Case and Deaton paper came out, I did some quick calculations, then some more careful calculations, and realized that their headline claim—an increase in mortality among middle-aged white Americans—was wrong. But when I wrote about it, and when I spoke with journalists, I made it clear that, although Case and Deaton made a mistake by not age adjusting (and another mistake by not disaggregating by sex), their key conclusion—their comparison with trends among other groups and in other countries—held up, so I was in agreement with Case and Deaton’s main point, even if I thought they were wrong about the direction of the trend and I was skeptical about their comparisons of different education levels.
Journalists’ take on this was, pretty much, that there was no controversy so everything Case and Deaton said should be taken at face value.
I don’t think this was the worst possible outcome: based on my read of the data, Case and Deaton are making reasonable points. I just wish there were a way for their story to motivate better news coverage. There are lots of experts in demographics and public health who could add a lot to this discussion.
As I wrote in my earlier post, Case and Deaton found some interesting patterns. They got the ball rolling. Read their paper, talk with them, get their perspective. Then talk with other experts: demographers, actuaries, public health experts. Talk with John Bound, Arline Geronimus, Javier Rodriguez, and Timothy Waidmann, who specifically raised concerns about comparisons of time series broken down by education. Talk with Chris Schmid, author of the paper, “Increased mortality for white middle-aged Americans not fully explained by causes suggested.” You don’t need to talk with me—I’m just a number cruncher and claim no expertise on causes of death. But click on the link, wait 20 minutes for it to download and take a look at our smoothed mortality rate trends by state. There’s lots and lots there, much more than can be captured in any simple story.
P.S. Just to emphasize: I’m making no equivalence between Wansink and Case/Deaton. Wansink’s published work is riddled with errors and his data quality appears to be approximately zero; Case and Deaton are serious scholars, and all I’ve said about them is that they’ve made a couple of subtle statistical errors which have not invalidated their key conclusions. But all of them, for different reasons, have made claims that have elicited little opposition, hence unfortunate gaps in media coverage.