Morris: Rankings — Indiana Most Hated?
As I write this, it is mere days from the presidential election, so my anxiety level is near an all-time high. I know you must be feeling it, too, but by the time many of you read this, the choice will have been made, so your dread will have started to fade a little or begun ratcheting up even more, depending on who will have become the president elect.
So, we’re in great need of a little mood lightener, and I have found one.
Indiana, we are being told, ranks in the top 10 among the most hated states in the U.S.
Isn’t that wonderful?
For too long, we have suffered the ignominy of living in an insignificant speck among indistinguishable specks dotting flyover country. How much better to be hated than ignored, because to be hated is to be feared. Come visit Indiana, if you dare, coastal elite poltroons. We’ll show you what Hoosier hospitality means, heh-heh.
Pretty silly, of course.
But then numbers often are, especially when they show up in news stories. Journalists are an innumerate lot, and too often more gullible than they need to be. They will just report the figures they are given, painting the exact picture they are asked to paint, however distorted it might be, because they don’t know any better.
A few examples:
- Indiana has among the lowest teacher salaries in the nation. This might be true when considering just the raw numbers, but it doesn’t take into account the cost of living. If you adjust teacher salaries for cost of living in all 50 states, as the group EdBuild did for 2016, you get a fairly narrow range. The adjustment ranks Indiana 18th, just behind 17th New York and just ahead of 19h California.
- Crime is out of control in Indianapolis (or pick your favorite city), so it needs more police officers. Maybe, maybe not. The average number of police officers per 1,000 residents is about 2.2 or 2.3 nationwide, but there is no recommended number out there, because there are too many factors to consider, such as the city’s geography, economy, history and crime patterns.
- COVID-19 cases are spiking again, so we should be very afraid. The number of reported cases is meaningless as a public health figure unless it is accompanied by the number of deaths. If the cases are going up but the death rate is going down, that is good news, not bad. A new report from Imperial College London puts the COVID infection fatality ration at about 1 percent in high-income countries but substantially lower in low-income countries with younger populations.
A never-ending parade of numbers with no context or the wrong interpretation means most people studying the federal budget have no concept of how much more than 1 million 1 trillion actually is. They have no idea of risk – the odds, say, of dying in a car wreck, by gunshot or from a tornado. They can’t give a rough estimate of U.S. or world population. They don’t understand a thing about percentages. They couldn’t tell a mean from a median if their lives depended on it.
It’s even worse when the numbers themselves are just made up. All those silly state-ranking, click-bait stories: Indiana is among the most hated states, the fattest, the unhealthiest, the dumbest, or it is among the best to retire in or raise a family and on and on. They are based on criteria in the writer’s head; nothing about them is real. Indiana is “hated,” among other reasons, because of how many people move from it – never mind why the people move.
The silliest numbers of all are in the opinion polls that have come to dominate our headlines and newscasts. Supposedly they give us a snapshot in time of the public mood, but as it became clear how much stock people put it them, they have been used to shape that public mood. Polls today are not just too much a part of the news; they too often create the news. If we are in danger of drifting from the sanity of a republic to the mob rule of a democracy, polling should get a large part of the blame.
So, let me know what you think. Do you believe my rant against numbers is a) exactly right, b) more right than wrong, c) more wrong than right, or d) exactly wrong?
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.