Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Burgh Diaspora

nyc-1996

New York City, New York, 1996. (Photo: Leo-seta/Flickr)

When Social Scientists Fail Demography

• August 04, 2014 • 3:00 AM

New York City, New York, 1996. (Photo: Leo-seta/Flickr)

Journalists often perpetuate demographic and geographic myths. But what if they’re interpreting academic papers correctly and it’s the experts who are to blame?

Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m hard on journalists who perpetuate demographic and geographic myths. Most of the time, journalists aren’t to blame. Tracking down the origination of brain drain claims, I find erroneous expert opinions. Letting the Washington Post (i.e. Wonkblog) off of the hook:

The below interactive map uses data from a recent working paper on happy (and unhappy) cities by economists Edward Glaeser and Oren Ziv at Harvard and Joshua Gottlieb at the University of British Columbia. Their research mines responses from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a national survey run by the CDC that has fueled most of what we know about the economics of happiness. …

… Many of the unhappiest cities are cities that have been in decline.

This doesn’t apply to New York, but it does to many of the other cities above: Places that have been declining in population, and that have had meager income growth, tend to have lower levels of happiness. Think St. Louis, Cleveland, Louisville. Unhappiness is particularly common in areas that have lost population. But the inverse isn’t necessarily true: Places that have been growing rapidly aren’t notably much happier. …

Did the unhappiness of these places drive people away? Or did the decline itself cause so much unhappiness? Maybe these places aren’t intrinsically unhappy at all — they just happened to attract the kind of people who were unhappy even before they moved there?

Emphasis added. Seamlessly, without concern, “declining in population” is a synonym for “places drive people away.” I see this all the time, inspiring me to write the post “Confusing Population Change With Migration.” Wonkblog is at fault if the journalists misunderstood the academic paper. But what if the experts were wrong? What if Glaeser of Harvard University confuses population change with migration? I can’t lay the common conflation at the feet of the Washington Post. Don’t shoot the messenger. From “Unhappy Cities” (PDF):

Over time, declining transport costs enabled capital and labor to flee low amenity places (Glaeser and Kohlhase, 2006) and move to “consumer cities” endowed with higher amenity levels (Glaeser, Kolko, and Saiz, 2001). Within the context of the model, this can be understood as a change in the covariance between productivity and the amenity parameters. In early 20th Century America, productivity may have been higher in lower amenity places, but in late 20th Century America, that negative covariance disappeared. As a result, population growth was faster in places that had higher amenities initially and lower levels of productivity

Emphasis added. Seamlessly, without concern, “flee low amenity places” is a synonym for “population growth was faster in places that had higher amenities.” Which brings me back to the Post and “this doesn’t apply to New York.” New York City is a place people flee (more than any other place in the entire United States) and a place with population growth. This strange juxtaposition confounds just about everyone (including me) save demographers.

Do parents in happier cities with more amenities have more sex and thus higher birth rates? If a researcher wanted to test the relationship between happiness and migration, I recommend a data set of outmigration rates instead of population numbers. I write this out of respect for other analyses such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Buffalo Branch (PDF):

Upstate New York’s weak population and labor force growth in recent years has raised concerns about a loss of educated workers. Indeed, the region has seen a net outflow of college-educated people. This issue of Upstate New York At-a-Glance finds that this net outflow reflects a low rate of in-migration to the region, rather than an unusually high rate of out-migration.

Residents are not fleeing “low amenity” Buffalo. Glaeser is making an unsubstantiated assertion, misleading journalists in the process. On the other hand, we know that residents are fleeing high amenity New York City. What gives? Your move, Glaeser.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.


October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.


October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.


October 28 • 2:00 AM

Who Funded That? The Names and Numbers Behind the Research in Our Latest Issue

This list includes studies cited in our pages that received funding from a source other than the researchers’ home institutions. Only principal or corresponding authors are listed.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.