Discover more from Sparks from Culture by David Roberts
Brief Post: A Numerical Bamboozle in the WSJ
I’m a numbers guy, and I get upset when I see that numbers are not fairly represented. (I also get upset when I hear the phrase “very unique,” but therapy is helping me with that.)
A recent Wall Street Journal article about the plummeting decline in American values is making the rounds. It’s based on three consistently worded polls conducted in 1998, 2019, and 2023. The article showcases a scary group of charts tracking over time what percentage of respondents thought five key values were very important. All the “positive” values declined significantly, except for money, which went up. And only a minority of respondents said that any of the five values were very important to them.
Here are the numbers as presented by the article.
The thrust of the article is that the majority of Americans have become a bunch of money-grubbing heathens uninterested in country, posterity, or community.
But here’s the problem with the showcased numbers above. I looked at the actual polls and the respondents were given the following choices about how important these values were to them.
1) Very Important
2) Somewhat Important
3) Not That Important
4) Not Important At All
What the pollsters themselves highlight in bold is the combined percentage of respondents answering either Very Important or Somewhat Important. The pollsters bolded it because that was the statistic they thought was the most relevant, although it did not make for nearly as dramatic a chart or news story.
So, here is the same table as above, but using the pollsters’ preferred methodology.
Admittedly, the trends in the four “positive values” are still down significantly over the past 15 years. But, instead of a minority of respondents attaching importance to these four values, we see instead a clear majority doing so, ranging from 60% to 80%. As for money, the root of all evil, the combined percentage has barely budged.
I understand why the WSJ reported it the way it did. But in doing so, it effectively bamboozled its readership.