Morris: Statistics Don’t Lie, but Journalists Do

November 6, 2017

by Leo Morris

Sorry, kids. If you’re in love and plan to take that final step in this state, better think again.

According to a news report about the latest statistics from 24/7 Wall Street, a “financial site” on the Web, Indiana has the sixth-highest divorce rate among the 50 states. You’re headed for misery and a life of broken dreams.

Just look at the numbers. Out of every 1,000 married individuals in Indiana in 2016, 19.6 of them got divorced.

Goodness. That is just astonishing. Why, that’s almost . . . 2 percent!

Hmmm. Doesn’t seem all that high, does it?

In Arkansas, the state with the highest rate, 23.4 of every 1,000 married individuals broke the ties that bind. That’s not quite 2.5 percent, and somehow that doesn’t seem so catastrophic, either.

Granted, if you knew there was a 2.5 percent chance of a crash, you might think twice about getting on that airplane.

But there is a lifetime risk of 2.2 percent that you will die in an automobile accident. Are you going to quit driving?

Whatever happened to that scary old warning that had so many of us trembling at the altar, you know, the one about half of all marriages ending in divorce? We have always known, haven’t we, that taking the marriage vows is to enter into “lady or the tiger” territory? Open that door, and there’s a 50-50 chance of eternal happiness or getting mauled to death.

Except that it is not true.

Do a little digging, and you will find some analysts willing to sneak up on reality and offer a timid little challenge of the Zeitgeist.

The divorce surge is over, according to a New York Times article from 2014: “The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.”

That statistic used to be correct, says a Psychology Today article from earlier this year, but “overall divorce rates have been falling for a few decades. The truth is, the average couple getting married today has more like a 75 percent chance of staying married. That means only about 1 in 4 recent marriages are likely to end in divorce.”

But the real truth is that the statistic is not only untrue now. It never was true in the first place. It was what the cool kids today call “fake news,” a commodity that unfortunately predates the presidency of Donald Trump by a long, long time.

It came about when intrepid journalists discovered the factoid that in any given year, about half as many people get divorced as get married. In 2006, for example, the marriage rate in the United States was 6.9 out of 1,000 people, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, and the divorce rate was 3.2 per 1,000 people. Divide 3.2 by 6.9, and you get 46 percent. Voila! Nearly half of marriages end in divorce.

But the reality of statistics is that raw numbers without context are meaningless.

The people who get divorced in any given year are not from the same group who got married in that year, so putting those numbers side by side tells us nothing. To learn something useful about the divorce rate, we’d need to compare people over time. How many people who got married 10 years ago are still together? How about 20 years ago, or 30?

Furthermore, we’d need to know something about the time and place of people getting married and divorced. What was the culture like and what was going on the larger society? Were there external forces that might point to a spike or dip in the rate being the continuation of a trend or a historical anomaly?

But none of that is in most curricula leading to a bachelor of arts degree. The sad fact is that most journalists are quite innumerate. Anything beyond “two plus two equals four” quite befuddles them. Yet they lumber on, dropping misleading numbers like crumbs to be followed from the desert of ignorance to the false oasis of enlightenment.

It can be interesting and even fun to follow those numbers from the individual to the group, to learn, for example, that on the whole Indiana has more overweight or obese youths than all but eight other states, that Indiana is the “eight-dumbest state” when considering the number of bachelor’s degrees, that smoking here ranks fifth in the world (just behind the Philippines).

But science and politics are a dangerous mix, especially when nothing stands between the two but clueless journalists who have no idea of the complexities they’re reporting on.

So it’s dangerous to stand by and let politicians use statistics the other way, from the group down to the individual, to use them to set policies that will rule us, to watch them stumble from the hair-on-fire stage (“Something drastic must be done immediately!”) to the we-can-fix-anything stage by spending huge amounts of money. That’s roughly where we are on the opioid “crisis.” Indiana University and state officials have announced a $50 million initiative, and newspaper editorial boards are delighted.

And it is downright stupid to plan your life based on those statistics.. If you get married, you will succeed or fail depending on whether you choose the right person and whether you put the effort in to make it work.

That’s the absolute truth, but the fact is that there’s only a 50 percent chance you will accept it.

Either you will or you won’t.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is a veteran of 40 years in Indiana journalism. As opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, Morris was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.



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