Friday, August 28, 2015

Are Creative Jobs Going Away, or Not?

One year ago this month I published a post on the effects of the Internet on jobs, especially in artistic fields.  Using books from 2013 and 2014 I assessed the situation, concluding it didn’t look good.  I maintained that although online outlets had created more places for performers and writers to sell their work they rarely provided significant money, that online publicity was mostly illusory, and that pay for most creators was low or nonexistent with life-supporting earnings going to fewer and fewer people.

I hadn’t seen much in the past year to contradict any of that, so was surprised to see an article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t,” by Steven Johnson, making a case that such “careers are thriving.”  So what points did this piece make?

First, the article was actually consistent with some of my perceptions.  Johnson acknowledged that the music industry had gone through a “financial Armageddon” with its sales dropping 75%, from $60 billion to $15 billion, since 1999.  He wrote that more and more content providers, especially musicians, writers, and actors, were self-employed, and that “most full-time artists barely make enough money to pay the bills.”    

Second, it named developments new to me.  According to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Employment Statistics, the number of those working for others in the Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media Occupations category increased, from 1.5 million to 1.8 million, between 1999 and 2014.  Those performing or writing music as their main job rose a similar percentage, from 53,000 to 60,000.  While recording revenue has crashed, live music has done the opposite, with its worldwide sales tripling from $10 billion in 1999 to $30 billion 15 years later.  As a result of the latter, as hit singles, on which most artists earned little, once served as promotion for albums or CDs, recorded music is now serving as a way to get people interested in buying concert tickets.  

Third, Johnson pointed out that both availability and cost of first-rate professional music production have given it to artists and companies which could never before have afforded it.  Software has made sound quality costing millions of dollars a generation or two ago available for thousands or even hundreds.  Top quality books can be designed and printed by many independent publishers much smaller than Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins.  Correspondingly for TV and movies, truly professional-quality filming can be and has been done, astonishingly, with smartphones.       

Fourth, the explosion of advertising, which I also named a year ago, has brought demand for many more creative artists.  As well, the growth of cable radio and the profusion of cable TV channels, both of which unlike their predecessors are funded directly by consumers, provide more markets for creative work.  Other outlets once suspected to be in danger, specifically movies and independent bookstores, have held on, at the middle financial levels as well as at the top.

What, then, sheds doubt on paid artistic workers still being in healthy demand?  For one thing, the data Johnson used ends at 2014, and these positions may have been damaged since.  For another, the growth in self-employment in these fields hardly means those in them are paid well – indeed, most or at least many are not earning enough in them to survive.  The use of “average,” or mean, income conceals concentration at the top, so increases tell us little about how most are doing. 

One conclusion pointed to by both the New York Times article and what I and others wrote earlier in the decade is that people involved with writing, music, acting, and other creative fields need to realize the economics of their businesses have changed.  It is no longer sufficient for financial success, or even financial survival, to simply excel at performing; as Johnson put it, “the new environment may well select for artists who are particularly adept at inventing new career paths rather than single-mindedly focusing on their craft.”  The good news is that, given this technology-driven transition, these jobs will not go away. 


A long time ago I predicted that in-person activities, in this computer age, would come to be valued much higher than electronic ones, and that is exactly what is taking place now.  I cannot take much credit for being prophetic, as I expected it to happen ten years ago.  However, led by the creative fields, that shift in beliefs may finally be appearing.      

Friday, August 21, 2015

Amazon’s Office Work Environment Is a Product of the Jobs Crisis

After my complaint last week about the lack of recent attention to employment-related issues, one became the big story last weekend.  That, specifically what it is like to be an Amazon.com management employee, was the subject of the main piece on the front page, not the front business-section page, of Sunday’s New York Times.  

The article, or, as it might be called, a 100-megaton stink bomb, “Inside Amazon:  Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, described what it is like to hold down a thinking job at this online retailer, a juggernaut which now has a quarter-trillion dollars in market capitalization.  It’s not easy, nor is it slow-paced, peaceful, harmonious, or, as the story implies and some cited former employees state, humane.  These positions require especially long hours and responses to emails at almost all other times, and are in a confrontational culture in which criticism can be sharp and frequent.  In what has become the most controversial part of the article, employees with health or other non-work problems, even severe issues such as cancer, have been put on performance improvement plans or have lost their jobs in Amazon’s annual removals of their lowest-ranking staff.  One interviewed manager said “nearly every person I worked with I saw cry at their desk.”  As a result, in sharp contrast with those getting the opportunity to work at relatively high pay for large, successful organizations, many new hires have lasted two years or less. 

In the five days since publication, the story has precipitated an outpouring of responses in major media outlets.  One of the first was a broad-based denial of Kantor and Streitfeld’s allegations from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in which he said “this article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,” along with his view that the piece described “shockingly callous management practices” and asserted “that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”  Within 48 hours, follow-on pieces were published in The Washington Post, Salon, and Fox Business, and, soon after that, related articles turned up in Financial Times and Harvard Business Review.  These pieces had views ranging from calling Bezos’s response “spin” which was “hard to swallow” (Salon) to questioning what Kantor and Streitfeld wrote, since Bezos had disagreed with it (Fox Business).  Columnist and former Treasury Secretary Robert Reich claimed that “America is a nation of Amazons,” and in the Harvard Business Review article, “The Research is Clear:  Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies,” the original New York Times story was cited in its first paragraph. 

So what can I add to the conversation? 

First, Amazon’s working conditions, even if accurately described, are hardly unique.  Many physicians, lawyers trying to become firm partners, and front-line Wall Street traders, to name three, have similar hours, on-call requirements, and overall obligations of job intensity.  There are others without such high pay, for example those in the armed services.

Second, the self-critical mentality, which one Kantor and Streitfeld interviewee said was common at Amazon, may not be common in America but is characteristic of not only employees but students in Japan and Korea.  It takes a real toll on those learning or completing tasks, but is a tradeoff, since it can help people succeed. 

Third, not all jobs are suitable for all with the required skills and abilities.  Different people are willing to accept different levels of hardship at their jobs, including the areas the article describes of work atmosphere, time required, and after-hours demands in exchange for advantages such as high involvement, fast competency acquisition, and the chance for promotion and a lucrative career with a gigantic, successful, and growing company.      

Fourth, it may be bias from my own corporate experience (14 years in AT&T management), but I am suspicious if some aspects of the culture Kantor and Streitfeld claimed that management mandated match up with reality.  Are subordinates actually able to criticize those at higher levels without damage?  Are they truly empowered to spend company resources, including money, to help customers outside of established channels?  Can they “disagree and commit,” as put by one of Amazon’s “leadership principles” (reminiscent to me of AT&T’s “Shared Values”), without repercussions?  It is an old business expression that workers will hear from their management that independent thought is valued right up to the day they are fired for it – has Amazon truly beat back the political realities that made this expression trite? 
Fifth, workplaces such as the Times authors described, even if they as their critics say were exaggerated or marred by unrepresentative examples, are a natural consequence of the permanent jobs crisis.  Where workers are in excess, workplace standards will rise.  When there is a large pool of qualified applicants ready to replace those giving up their jobs, high turnover becomes less detrimental.  When a large share of people hired turn out to be unequal to the intensity, hours, and lack of outside obligations a position requires, they can be replaced by others who can try. 


Over the next few weeks and months, much more will be written and published about Amazon.com and on other work environments.  We will gain information about the accuracy of this New York Times story, and more on how companies allegedly or actually function in 2015.  What we should not be is surprised, or think that we are facing something truly new in the world of work.  We are not.  We may, though, be seeing more and more effects of the jobs crisis, which despite a lower unemployment rate is still with us.  That is what the Amazon article truly means.         

Friday, August 14, 2015

Jobs Schmobs! What’s Happening with the Candidates?

On one day last week we had two fine debates among 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls, with a sad but understandable omission.  American employment, just about out of the news otherwise as well, was essentially absent from the candidates’ Thursday discussions.  I’m not going to fight that, so here are my views on what’s happening with this bunch of people who now number enough to make up two football teams. 

Donald Trump, as my wife Mary put it, is still sucking all the air out of the room.  The press, as well as a remarkable number of scarily likely voters, is infatuated with him, to the point where we’re seeing major-press articles about what he does at home and about the statuses of his TV ventures.  He’s not lasting much longer at his lofty polling level, though, for two main reasons.  First, George Will beat him up but good yesterday in the Washington Post, calling him “incorrigibly vulgar,” “no conservative,”  and per his column’s title a “counterfeit Republican,” and pulled his punches even less when describing Trump’s recent and forecasted words.  Will, since he excels like no other public figure at being the only adult in the room, is taken seriously, especially by his and Trump’s party’s leadership.  Second, if gravity doesn’t bring Donald’s numbers down, he will find out just how difficult it is to be a front-runner.  His intimidation won’t carry him through even the inoffensive questions that will pour in about him and his policy positions, and his veneer of supporters won’t be able to protect him.  Temper tantrums from those aspiring to the highest office in the land won’t exactly be seen as seemly.  

When this drunken binge by a quarter of the population gives way to its inevitable hangover, the path will be reinstated for (speaking of adults in the room) Jeb Bush, whose audience will let him make the case for being the true presumptive nominee.  How well he does at that will determine how much scope there is for his true competition, which is still Scott Walker (despite his stupid approval of a quarter-billion dollar basketball arena) and the invisible but still present Marco Rubio. 

At the next tier, the Republicans certainly have bench strength.  Waiting in the wings, but probably not truly able to put themselves in the top group, are the sensible, thoughtful, and superintelligent Ben Carson and the clear-thinking Carly Fiorina.  Chris Christie also belongs here, though the forthcoming public disgust with bullies such as Trump may give him too much, in conjunction with Bridgegate, for him to overcome. 

On the other side, Hillary Clinton is in real trouble.  She made the wrong decision about her email mishandling – this far from the primaries, she should have put all of her cards on the table without being forced – and that isn’t her only problem.  Not since the death of disco have I seen such a juggernaut resented by so many in the shadows.  If my mother, a well-educated woman from the Northeast whose first presidential vote was for Adlai Stevenson and has never made one for the other party, is leery and distrusting of Clinton, then what kind of people are in Hillary’s core constituency?  Rush Limbaugh made an interesting point this week, suggesting that Bernie Sanders’ phenomenal appeal might be coming from the same thing that propelled Obama into office eight years before, namely dissatisfaction with the same presumptive nominee.   Her latest sportsbook.ag odds have lengthened to 13 to 10 against, which I suspect are much too short.  Joe Biden, almost certainly a target of passionate Democratic elders these past few weeks, will probably get in the race, as the longer he takes to decide, the more time he puts between himself and the death of his son.  The refreshingly forthright Sanders has not yet peaked, and in the absence of Biden will continue to be the chief recipient of disaffected former Clinton supporters. 


So what about jobs?  It will take a recession to put them on the presidential candidates’ front burner.  Some Democrats have mentioned the excellent idea of a national infrastructure project, but as I still see no takers for that among Republicans, it has become a partisan issue.  Otherwise, we’re going nowhere with this permanent crisis which has slightly abated but hardly disappeared.  At least, though, our candidates are giving us some kind of show to watch.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

AJSN Little Changed in July as U.S. is Now 18.9 Million Jobs Short

July was a consolidation month.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data was barely different from June’s, as the labor force participation rate, the employment-to-population ratio, and the headline seasonally adjusted jobless rate were all unchanged.  We gained 215,000 net jobs last month, a tad lower than in June, but still more than the population increase could cover, and unadjusted unemployment rose, due to fewer people working as usual in July than in June, to 5.6%.  The number of long-term jobless, or those out for 27 weeks or more and still looking, bounced back partway from its 400,000 June drop to 2.2 million, and, in the best news of the month, those working part-time for economic reasons, or people wanting to extend their labor hours to full-time and not finding the opportunity, fell 200,000 to 6.3 million. 

What is most significant, except the last improvement, is that the 37-plus year lows in labor force participation and employment as a share of population, the best indicators of how common it is for Americans to have jobs, held last month’s losses.  Often when one of these numbers varies greatly from the month before it reverses somewhat in the next, as did long-term unemployment as above, but these two did not.  That means they have a real chance of setting new post-1977 lows again for August. 

The American Job Shortage Number, or AJSN, showing latent demand for additional jobs, increased 83,000 last month.  That was actually less than the growth in the share of those officially unemployed expected to take work if it were readily available.  As it usually does, those reporting they would accept jobs if they were not in school or training fell from June to July, and people wanting work but not having looked for it for a year or more did the same.  In all, the AJSN came in as follows:



Compared with a year before, the AJSN has shown real improvement.  In July 2014, there were 1.5 million more officially jobless, meaning that if 90% of them would take work if it were easy to find, that set of people would absorb 1.35 million more positions than now.  The other groups offset a tiny bit of that.  Fifty-eight percent of these jobs would now be filled by people not technically unemployed, higher than in previous months but still not far from historic lows. 


So where are we now?  This month splendidly fits with the movements of 2015 – new jobs moderately but not massively outstripping population gains, fewer Americans working part-time for economic reasons and staying officially unemployed for over six months, but jobs becoming, proportionally, less and less common.  Those are the modern trends.  We are also piling up years without a true recession – a fine thing, but not one assured of continuing indefinitely.  The jobs crisis, if softened somewhat, continues, even if the turtle is still moving forward.      

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Real Candidate Deserving Our Attention, on Jobs and Beyond: Bernie Sanders

Last week there seemed to be only one 2016 presidential hopeful, if you can call him that, in the news.  I’m refusing to get in on the frenzy, so will not even mention his name.  I only add that after everyone sobers up about him, he’ll give his party the DTs by threatening to run independently and thereby hand the election to Hillary Clinton.

Or will it be Hillary at all?

Bernie Sanders, the candidate now a distant second in media attention, may be the beneficiary instead.  Radical?  Perhaps.  But consider what is happening.

First, Clinton is spinning her wheels.  She has had very little to say, on jobs or almost anything else.  Even Democrats have been commenting on how her campaign events are devoid of information.  She has been unable to get positive press for anything specific, and when the subject turns to her it is still often about her email scandal.  Her party is already starting to think seriously about alternatives; as an example, Salon published an article earlier this month suggesting they draft Al Gore.  More and more swing voters may come to agree with my view, as well, that what the country needs least from 2017 to 2021 is another moderate Democrat.   

Second, the other declared candidates in her party have campaigns so moribund – Martin O’Malley seems to be getting no press at all, Jim Webb got all of his within 24 hours of his joining the race, and Lincoln Chaffee, with 300 to 1 sportsbook.ag odds against him, is behind three undeclared and unanticipated contenders – that prediction market PredictWise actually has Joe Biden in third place.  

Third, Sanders has been setting records in two areas.  Not only has he been getting the largest campaign-speech crowds, including 11,000 in Phoenix, but he has collected more money in under-$200 campaign contributions than anyone else.  The breadth of his popularity has been so unexpected even to his organization that, as of mid-month, they had run out of buttons and bumper stickers. 

Fourth, he has plenty to say, especially on American employment.  In a campaign where almost half of the contenders are silent on the issue, Sanders’ website has several pages.  He wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over a period of years.  He is a strong advocate of unions, wanting card-check membership, in which workers can form unions if a majority claim they want them.  He voted to lengthen unemployment benefits from 39 to 59 weeks, a good idea when millions of workers have been officially jobless, which means they have been looking for work and applying for positions weekly, for over six months.  He has been combining with Obama to get more employees time-and-a-half for overtime, which I also support – while I do not agree with him on the minimum wage, there is no place for employers to abuse the definition of salaried and management positions by underpaying or not paying production workers for extra hours.  He recognizes on his site something that every candidate of either party should but few do, that “the real unemployment rate is much higher than the “official” figure typically reported in the newspapers.”   He not only supports a nationwide construction project, but “introduced legislation which would invest $1 trillion over 5 years to modernize our country’s physical infrastructure.”  That sort of effort, which Republicans should get behind as well, is probably the best single readily implementable thing anyone can do to help our permanent jobs crisis. 

Fifth, Sanders offers conservatives something as well, on gun control, where his words and record are more Republican than Democrat.  He comes from a rural area, where firearms not only serve constructive purposes but are rarely abused.  It is hard to find someone otherwise on the far left who voted to prohibit the use of funds by international organizations which register or tax guns owned by Americans, wants people to be able to check firearms on Amtrak trains, and says things such as “If somebody has a gun and somebody steals that gun and shoots somebody, do you really think it makes sense to blame the manufacturer of that weapon?,” and “If somebody assaults you with a baseball bat, you hit somebody over the head, you’re not going to sue the baseball bat manufacturer,” but Sanders is unique in other ways as well. 

Sixth, Clinton may crash and burn.  As I have written before, she is no Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, or even Angela Merkel.  If she gets the nomination, she will face verbal and press abuse of the worst kind.  It will not all be fair, and some will be vicious, personal, and even sexual in nature.  In the process of beating her among Democrats and winning the election, Barack Obama got hit with about everything imaginable, and stood up to it superbly.  If she cannot do the same, she will not win.  Sometime between now and March’s full-swing primary season, she will find out that, contrary to what she has been told and almost certainly believes, even the Democratic nomination is not her entitlement – and that will be hard for her, as it would be for anyone who has been the prohibitive frontrunner for years, to take. 

I say Clinton doesn’t get through it.  When she loses her composure, and her support soon follows, someone will need to take over.  It just may be Bernie Sanders.  Don’t you dare rule him out.    


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

‘Tis the Season for Logical Gaffes – II

Last week, I wrote about some ways statistics can be misinterpreted, usually with the help of partisan thinkers who would like us to do just that.  Those aren’t the only sort of flawed arguments.  What other ones are we getting in this 18-month presidential election season?

One is something both parties seem constantly guilty of, which is attacking the most extreme views of the other side.  That is not a logical gaffe as such, but becomes one if you are fooled into thinking that the opposing statements Rush Limbaugh or Paul Krugman, to name two of the worst offenders, cite is the other party’s common view.  Al Sharpton’s opinions are not shared by most liberals, and most conservatives want nothing to do with the excesses of Donald Trump.  So when someone on the other side quotes something insane or even just unusually poorly judged, it does not qualify as a strike against the left or the right; accordingly, protect yourself by considering how representative something being vilified (and, I add, being publicized; many screwballs get their best press, from their opponents, this way) actually is.

A second error is an old one – the ad hominem fallacy, or judging the person making a point instead of the point itself.  Congressional Republicans have been stinking up the joint with this one for years, acting as if, since they don’t like President Obama, everything he proposes or even says must be wrong.  He has had results endorsable by the most conservative quarter of the country – the recent free trade bill, his refusal to close or even reform the Guantanamo Bay prison, Osama bin Laden’s elimination, the ever-stronger dollar, the stock market’s almost threefold increase during his term, and the lack of new financial regulation – but his political opponents are so determined to oppose him that they often scarcely seem to be seeing what he’s actually doing or not doing.  Almost everything that columnist and Fox News spokesman Charles Krauthammer says seems to start with the idea that Obama was wrong, which is logically impossible if not highly selective.  Many Democrats did the same things when George W. Bush was in office.  “Criticize the idea, not the person” was formal direction I received at AT&T management discussion sessions a quarter century ago, and it’s still the way to go.

Third, related, might be called “inflexibility about platforms.”  The Republicans are almost all conservative these days, which the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines as “believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society.”  Democrats, nearly all liberal, therefore subscribe to “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically:  such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class).”  Those are reasonably cohesive attitudes, but, since some areas clearly are in need of change and government involvement and some areas obviously need to stay the same, it does not make sense to stick to one view completely.  So whether you swing to the left or the right, be aware that there absolutely must be exceptions to the general philosophy your party is advocating.

The fourth problem area is about unchecked emotions.  We use words and phrases as symbols, and often fail to look at their limitations.  To conservatives, police, soldiers, veterans, the flag, and mainstream Christianity arouse positive feelings, but most liberals like them too, and few Republicans would agree that they should have unlimited prominence in our society.  Do we want a police state with no questioning of their practices allowed, six-figure pensions for all former soldiers, or decade-long prison sentences for abusing Old Glory?  No – those would be too extreme.  Therefore, there are limitations on what it really means to say “support our troops” or “we need God back in our lives.”  Such statements, often expressed by political candidates, are only emotion triggers and not meaningful.  To avoid being swayed here, ask yourself what if anything someone actually means when they invoke one of those, or if they just want you to like them more.

The fifth logical gaffe is pack journalism, which Merriam-Webster defines as being “practiced by reporters in a group and… marked by uniformity of news coverage and lack of original thought or initiative.”  Liberals are most at fault here, as, though perceptions of media bias are often overrated, most news sources do tend to the left.  Sociologically, organizations in which membership is valued develop orthodoxies, which you can see in everything from the way NFL players go from sidelines to huddles to the way TV talk show guests speak.  These ways of approved behavior also extend to opinions.  When the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit was in force, virtually every major commentator said it was a good thing.  In the 1990s, stories did not question the war against drugs.  Until the past few months, there were no major-outlet articles suggesting the euro was a bad idea.  Many sharp observers saw problems before, but only when these things started generating bad track records did the communication prohibitions weaken.  Some of our current unquestionable ideas are:  that climate change is both bad and human-caused;  that discrimination against men in general and straight, white, Anglo men in particular is trivial or nonexistent; that mainstream black culture deserves no blame for poor economic and social results; and that women’s lower overall average wage is primarily due to discrimination.  I believe that all of these notions will be discredited over time, and when they are, these bans will disappear.  In the meantime, watch out for ideas which seem controversial but are never questioned in ordinary newspapers, radio stations, or TV networks, since they probably need to be.          


Overall, there are many different reasonable views out there, and, if you prefer, many unreasonable ones as well.  It is important to be an independent thinker and choose to what to subscribe, regardless of what either political party says.  Just don’t be fooled by deceptive appeals.  They are as old as politics, and won’t go away any sooner.  

Friday, July 17, 2015

‘Tis the Season for Logical Gaffes - I

With no fewer than 20 national-level declared presidential candidates, we are getting all kinds of information about America’s problems and opportunities.  Some, maybe most, of it is sincere and honest, but a lot would match up with a picture on Facebook showing a horse trailer marked with the message “Caution Floor Covered with Political Promises.”  It’s plenty hard enough to sort out what we think are wrong and right, but there is another concern.  Some arguments are simply logically flawed. 

Note that I’m not talking about anything debatable, any baseless accusations, or about ideas that we think reasonable people would always reject.  I’m not picking on either side, or any candidate, in particular.  In the process of getting a Ph.D., I learned a lot about what is and isn’t valid argument.  Such knowledge is not common, as I can see by how often even smart, informed sources fall into the traps I will describe.  So how can you, too, become aware of them?  Here are the first four. 

First is what I have long called “Darrell Huff” graphs.  Huff was the author of How to Lie with Statistics, a groundbreaking 1954 book which described this gaffe.  If we take a trend’s statistical progress, such as, in this example, one view of how many people our country will have in the next 5 to 45 years, and graph it in simple fashion, we might get this:



There is no distortion here.  We can see that we might expect a substantial if not massive increase, running from something like 335 million in 2020 to over 400,000,000 forty years later.

But suppose we want to show that this increase is projected to be huge?  We can do that by changing the scale of the Y-axis (the vertical one, on the left), which gets us the following:


See the difference?  This chart is more likely than the first to prod a reader into thinking that our population is going way up.  It even looks better, since the line is in more of the area.  And yet I have not changed a single data point.  The logical problem is that, in this case, 325 million is not a guaranteed minimum, which the graph implies it is.  More than 60 years after Huff’s book, charts with nonzero Y-axes are still commonplace – and fool people consistently.  To avoid being one of them, check for a zero in the lower left-hand corner before consciously reacting. 

Second, correlation is not the same as causation.  As I have written before, that means that when two things seem to go together, one need not be making the other happen.  While that rule has been well known in the scientific community for as long as there has been academic research, it still fools many otherwise smart people outside it.  When two trends seem to match up, often the second causes the first instead of vice versa, or, most likely, there is what is known as a “third variable problem” – the first and second are both caused by another factor.  As before, although studies have shown that girls playing high school sports have lower rates of pregnancy and illegal drug use than their classmates, the games may not be responsible, as lack of interest in drugs may open the door for athletic activity, and the real explanation is probably a third variable – social class, which, for girls, drives not only reduced drug and pregnancy problems but sports participation.  As a result, all articles or news stories giving correlations should arouse your skepticism.

The third gaffe is Parmenides’ Fallacy, or the assumption that without someone’s specific actions the situation would have stayed the same.  This error is especially common in election seasons, when candidates impugn incumbents about things worsening under their tenure.  If American foreign policy has weakened under Barack Obama, we can’t necessarily blame him, since it may have got even worse under Mitt Romney.  By the same token, a Republican win in 2012 may have made our unemployment even lower than the latest 5.3%, so Obama does not get automatic credit for improvement from the 8%-plus it was when he took office.  It is simply not legitimate to assume that any aspect of the human world is unchanging.  As with the correlation and causation gaffe, statements dependent on comparisons with years before should trigger your suspicion.

Fourth is incomplete information.  It is almost the same as what people call “comparing apples and oranges,” but is in a way more insidious, since something is missing from only one side.  A Washington Post article last month cited two statistics apparently, in combination, supporting gun control, that for every case of a felon being shot and killed in self-defense there were 34 accidental firearm deaths.  Those numbers, while believable, are inconsistent, as most people defending themselves or their property with guns do not end up killing their assailants.  If the article would have offered that information, we could have used it to help our personal positions on firearm freedoms, but without that key piece, missing only from the second half of the equation, we cannot sensibly go any further with it. 


These are the most statistical of the nine logical gaffes I have identified.  Going beyond how the numbers are handled, what five other argumentation techniques are less than rational?  That will be the subject of next week’s post.