Man Without Qualities


Tuesday, September 07, 2004


A Deeper And More Comprehensive Wackiness At The New York Times

What the heck could be happening among New York Times reporters that might possibly explain the paper's front page weeper, A Universe of Loss and Recovery for 9/11 Families, Survey Shows? Quoted blocs below are all from that article:

A deeper and more comprehensive portrait ... emerges from a New York Times survey comprising scores of detailed interviews exploring the families' [of September 11 World Trade Center victims] emotional, physical and spiritual status. That survey found lives colored by continuing pain. Almost half still have a hard time getting a good night's sleep. A few said they no longer flew on airplanes. About a third have changed jobs or quit. About one in five have moved since 2001, and a fifth of those who still live where they did on Sept. 11 would move if they could. Very few who lost a spouse have remarried.

We should all have great sympathy for the families of 9-11 victims - and one assumes the Times' reporters who committed this article do, too. But sympathy does not excuse the Times from failing to provide any indication whatsoever as to how its survey respondents characteristics differ (1) now from what they were prior to the disaster or (2) from a similar group in the general population. Do the Times' respondents differ from the population generally in respect of the characteristics identified by the Times? Who knows! For example, it is undeniably sad that, of all survey respondents, almost half still have a hard time getting a good night's sleep. The Times evidently wants its readers to believe that its respondents disproportionately have trouble sleeping. But according to a recent National Sleep Foundation national survey among adults 55 to 84 years of age - the 2003 Sleep in America poll - about one-half of all older adults report having one or more symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week (48%). Indeed, it has been reported that up to 90 percent of older people report some type of sleep problem. But perhaps the Times' respondents included not so many older people - perhaps the Times spoke to more young parents. They hardly ever get a good nights sleep because babies won't let that happen.

Similarly, the Times sobs: About one in five have moved since 2001, and a fifth of those who still live where they did on Sept. 11 would move if they could. Dear me - the Times implies - the respondents' just can't stand staying where the memories of September 11 linger so painfully. But the Census Bureau reports that in a typical recent year - March 1999 to March 2000 - over 40 million Americans move. In the three years since September 11 approximately 120 million Americans have moved (ignoring double movers) - more than one in three of the entire population of about 300 Million. The real question the Times survey poses is: Why aren't the families of September 11 victims moving as much as the rest of us? There are a lot of reasons people move - or don't. But the Times doesn't care to sort any of that out.

What is one to make of findings highlighted by the Times such as "A few said they no longer flew on airplanes." and "Very few who lost a spouse have remarried." For example, surely in any given three-year period and any given population there are "a few" people who no longer fly on airplanes. How does this observation shed any light? And is it surprising or different that about a third of respondents have changed jobs or quit since 2001? Well, that observation suggests that the victims may have had a rather smaller number of retired, laid-off and stay-at-home relatives than is found in the population generally, since retired people, fired people and non-working spouses don't usually "change jobs or quit." Perhaps the Times in this case is just looking at working respondents - but doesn't tell us. In ordinary years people in the New York financial industry seem to me to change jobs a lot more than people in the population generally. Is that also true of their families? Who knows? - and the Times doesn't care.

Nor does the Times even mention whether the survey bothered to ask questions like: Did you have a hard time getting a good night's sleep before September 11? Or Did you change jobs or quit or move in the three years prior to the September 11 attacks? Nor did the Times look into the pre-September 11 remarriage characteristics of these people in any way - although the fact that "very few" have since remarried after the disasters was noted. In other words, the Times' "deeper and more comprehensive portrait" apparently cannot tell us how the respondents lives were changed by their September 11 experiences. The closest the Times comes to such an understanding is in noting that "about a fifth [of respondents] attend religious services more often than they used to" and that "one in 12 reported trying harder to "spend more time" with family and friends." But, even here, consider that "one in 12" observation. Does that seem high - the Times seems to think it is? My informal and unscientific survey of friends and acquaintances asking exactly that question ("Are you now trying to spend more time with family and friends than you were three years ago?) yielded a far higher percentage of respondents who said they were "trying" than "one in 12."

The Times used standard survey methods in questioning the relatives or close friends of victims who died at the trade center; relatives of those killed on the jetliners or at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania were not included. Still, the survey of relatives differed from a typical poll. Because the total number of relatives cannot be known with absolute certainty, the responses cannot be applied to all relatives with the statistical precision of a poll. For that reason, no margin of sampling error could be calculated.


A perceptive reader e-mails about this passage:

So, in a Presidential poll, we must conclude either:
(a) The total number of voters is known with "absolute certainty,"
which would probably be a scoop both parties would like to see reported; or
(b) Times polls should refrain from citing margins of error; or
(c) Times journalists are statistically illiterate.


It's not even clear from the article who was surveyed. The article explains that the Times used standard survey methods in questioning the relatives or close friends of victims who died at the trade center ... but then the article goes on to fuss over just relatives, not close friends.

So who was surveyed - "relatives" or "relatives or close friends?" We are then told that the total number of relatives cannot be known with absolute certainty. Is the Times suggesting that the total number of close friends of a given victim can be known with absolute certainty? Perhaps a "close friend" is defined by the Times to be an actual respondent self-identified as a "close friend." Of course, in that case the total number of close friends of a given victim can be known with absolute certainty. Is this deeper and more comprehensive portrait of the victims' families and close friends based on such a meaningless tautology?

The families are, it turns out, acutely aware of how others see them. Close to half those interviewed believe that other people feel too much has been said about what happened on 9/11. A third said friends and neighbors avoided talking about the attacks when they are around.


Unless the respondents' are accurate in their observations, none of this indicates that the families are acutely aware of how others see them. For example, is it true that the public really generally believes what one respondent, William Wilson, said: "They've got this idea that we're all multimillionaires and why don't we just get over it, or life goes on - that whole general drift." I feel for Mr. Wilson, but I don't think the public is as hard hearted as he thinks in his grief. He doesn't seem to be "acutely aware," he seems to be upset and distracted.

At the same time, they are worried about another terror attack on New York. More than three-quarters described themselves as "very concerned" about another attack, a concern shared by two-thirds of New York City residents, according to a separate Times poll completed at about the same time. Other relatives said the government's color-coded threat warnings had made them feel anxious, not secure. Most said, though, that they were not doing anything differently since the most recent change in the alert level.

How does identifying a characteristic of the respondents that is shared by two-thirds of New York City residents help to illuminate how these people have been particularly affected by the September 11 attacks?

The Times seems to present the fact that the government's color-coded threat warnings had made them feel anxious, not secure as somehow bad or peculiar - even a failure on the government's part. But the threat warnings are supposed to make people "feel anxious" - just as, say, the fire alarm going off is supposed to make the residents in the house "feel anxious." A good warning system makes people feel secure in the large because it makes them feel anxious when it is activated. Another Times observation suggests that the respondents do feel very secure (even alarmingly or irrationally secure), although the Times reporters don't seem to understand the significance of their findings:

The relatives also share the alarm felt by other New Yorkers over how the city would handle another attack. In the poll of city residents, 51 percent said the city was not adequately prepared to deal with one.


Since its very unlikely that many New York City residents have "no opinion" on this topic, this finding seems to imply that almost one-half of New York City residents (and, apparently, the families of September 11 victims) think the city is adequately prepared to deal with another attack like the September 11 disaster.

Think about that. One-in-two New York City residents and members of victims' families think the city is adequately prepared. This is exactly the kind of delusional thinking that Democrats are counting on to make people think that terrorism is no longer the issue it once was. Now there's a story.

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