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Two steps forward, one step back

Alex Gamma writes in with what he describes as “an amusing little story” from two years ago:

When Deaton & Case published their study, and after your re-analysis had uncovered the missing age-correction, I’ve pointed out this issue to several news blogs that reported on the study, but were not aware of the problem (only about 2 in 5 or so responded).

One was the blog of Swiss National Television, titled “Many American men die in their prime”. They brought an interview with their U.S. correspondent about the increasingly dire living condition of these white men and how that might drive them into suicide. I pointed the problem out to them, linking to your Slate piece and adding a relevant quote.

The reply I got was (my translation):

The study was conducted by a Nobel prize winner in economics, published in PNAS [link to paper] and discussed in pretty much all the serious media, e.g. by Paul Krugman in the New York Times.

That’s also described in the Slate article. It’s true that there has now emerged a discussion about the interpretation of the numbers and the right or wrong numbers, respectively. The interview was simply about the content of the study, how it is to be understood and how it is discussed in the USA.

So far, that’s the not all too unexpected, dodging of the issue. But what they added at the end was almost brilliant:

In the last paragraph of the Slate article itself it says fittingly: I’m pretty sure some people will find major problems in my analysis. That’s how it goes, two steps forward and, if we’re lucky, only one step back.

They beat you with your own weapon!

At least that’s what I thought back then. I thought “don’t put a disclaimer that you don’t really mean, it might backfire”. Of course, I don’t know how you meant that disclaimer, probably it was dead serious.

Hmm, good point. I write “I’m pretty sure some people will find major problems in my analysis,” but that was too strong. Here’s what I should’ve said:

I wouldn’t be surprised if people find major problems in my analysis. And in any case I’m sure our understanding will evolve as we learn more. That’s how it goes, two steps forward and, if we’re lucky, only one step back.

Hmmm . . . “Our understanding will evolve as we learn more,” that’s a bit too vague. But it’s an improvement on my original phrasing. People do sometimes find major problems in my work, but saying “I’m sure” that would happen, yeah, that’s not accurate. Most of the time I think my published claims hold up.

6 Comments

  1. Kyle C says:

    “The interview was simply about the content of the study, how it is to be understood and how it is discussed in the USA,” said the Swiss.

    I predicted here that Case and Deaton’s work would enter the popular wisdom as the story of Stoically Dying White Men, and that is what is happening, even though that is not the story the numbers tell.

  2. Colman says:

    I feel like it was clear to me that “I’m pretty sure some people will find major problems in my analysis” is not to be taken literally that you really are sure there are major problems with your work. Even still, it’s comical to use your line as a rebuttal against your article, without first actually having found the problems.

  3. Dzhaughn says:

    (A) Isn’t “Our understanding will evolve as we learn more” a tautology?

    (B) Should one also say, likewise, “I’m pretty sure that some people will ignore or dismiss this analysis without justification, and that some people will incorrectly allege major problems with it.”

  4. mpledger says:

    In this paper “Cause of Death Affects Racial Classification on Death Certificates”
    http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0015812
    ~~~~
    Perhaps nowadays people dying of opioids are more likely to be classified as white on the death certificate because they are white people’s “diseases”.

    Also, I still think mis-reporting of race/ethnicity causes some of error in death rates. For example, ….
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    DEATH STATISTICAL FILE DATA NOTES
    Washington State Department of Health
    Center for Health Statistics, September, 2016

    DEATH CERTIFICATE ITEMS

    RACE/HISPANIC ETHNICITY(ORIGIN)

    Reporting of race/Hispanic ethnicity(origin) on death certificates is sometimes based on observing the decedent, rather than questioning the next of kin. This procedure causes an underestimate of deaths for certain groups, particularly Native Americans, some Asian subgroups, and Hispanics. Thus, death rates based on death certificate data are lower than true death rates for these groups.
    https://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/5300/DeathStatisticalDataNotes.docx
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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