All-purpose trend explainers

Scenario: Journalist rings an academic with a striking sounding statistic – say a 43% increase in the number of Victorians contacting the Department of Justice to complain about the behaviour of other adults – looking for an explanation.

The academic doesn’t actually know why there is a trend up or down, but not wanting to disappoint a journalist who needs copy, offers an all-purpose trend explainer. These are general changes that can, due to their broad nature, be used to explain all sorts of other changes. Hugh Mackay filled dozens of columns with all-purpose trend explainers.

But are we really left much the wiser when we get theorising like this?:

Melbourne University Associate Professor Jenny Lewis, whose research includes social connectedness, said the rise reflected the changing way in which people related to each other.

Busier lives, longer working hours and shifting house more often meant we did not connect as strongly with our neighbours any more, she said.

“We might be on ‘hello’ terms with our neighbours but we don’t have a relationship. So, when something goes wrong . . . it just sort of escalates,” Professor Lewis said.

Increased reliance on technology to communicate, as well as issues such as climate change and the economy also influenced people’s relationships, she said.

That’s pretty impressive: six all-purpose trend explainers (busier lives, longer working hours, shifting house, climate change, technology, the economy) to help us understand why an extra 900 Victorians – out of about 5.4 million - decided to complain to the government about other Victorians.

Some of these all-purpose trend explainers are in any case pretty dubious. Do complaints increase in hot months (climate change)? Or is this just a current fashionable all-purpose trend explainer? Apart from international migration, Australians are moving house less rather than more often. The long hours work culture peaked in 2000.

None of the others show big enough changes in recent times to really explain why more people are using government to help settle disputes over a 2 year period, even if they could help explain why social relationships differ from various periods in the past.

There are other obvious possible explanations worth exploring, such as greater awareness of this dispute resolution service diverting people from legal action or raging arguments over the back fence.

As a blogger, I’m no doubt occasionally (maybe more often) guilty of using all-purpose trend explainers. Blogs are like journalism, based on what is quickly available even if it is not the product of careful thought or research. But without something more convincing than coincidence or an intuitive causal association all-purpose trend explainers don’t add analytical value.

14 Responses to “All-purpose trend explainers

  • 1
    Rajat Sood
    November 1st, 2009 18:16

    Typical Sunday Age fare. The only stuff worth reading in that rag is Chris Berg’s column, the auction results for those of us looking forward to seeing Steve Keen walk to Mount Kosciusko and the magazines for some harmless trash. These humanities academics have less to offer than the Sunday Life writers, and that’s no mean feat.

  • 2
    Francis Xavier Holden
    November 1st, 2009 19:04

    As someone who occasionally get rung by journos (ok its often suburban rags but hey) it a certainty that what is written will barely resemble what was said. Or if it has a few words that were originally uttered then they will be so out of context as to make one wonder if the journo was sober or involved with Scientology.

    On the stats in question: 900 Victorians – so what. Over two years. Could be better recording of phone calls. Could be simpler forms on internet.

    Possibly its marginally better than letting your neighbours tyres down, or abusing her over the fence, or setting the Rotty onto him, or playing AC/DC over the back fence when they are at a BBQ, or better than egging their car, or pissing on their vegie patch, or tipping their bin over on bin night, or calling the cops suggesting child abuse, -…..

    May be a good thing that 900 extra complained.

  • 3
    Andrew Norton
    November 1st, 2009 19:15

    I was trying not to be too critical of the academic involved, my own words of qualification and explanation to journalists often having not made it to the paper.

  • 4
    Krystian
    November 1st, 2009 20:09

    She forgot to mention solar flares, they could possibly have had some sort of impact…

  • 5
    JC
    November 1st, 2009 20:44

    Rajat:

    That’s hilarious.

  • 6
    JC
    November 1st, 2009 20:47

    Increased reliance on technology to communicate, as well as issues such as climate change and the economy also influenced people’s relationships, she said.

    I wonder how long it will be before someone tries climate change as a defense in a murder case.

  • 7
    Russell
    November 1st, 2009 21:33

    Pity Jenny missed the opportunity to sheet the blame home to Maggie ‘there’s no such thing as society’ Thatcher!
    .
    Of course climate change is making everyone crabbier – where are the future fun times likely to be coming from? It’s gloom and doom.
    .
    Higher density housing has a lot to answer for, crowding people in like rats, naturally there’ll be more unpleasantness.
    .
    And disconnecting people more from their neighbours is the regrettable consequence of sending kids off to private schools in distant suburbs.

  • 8
    Alexander
    November 1st, 2009 23:33

    Higher density housing has a lot to answer for, crowding people in like rats, naturally there’ll be more unpleasantness.

    Is housing in Australia particularly “higher density”? The whole course of the twentieth century was basically to reduce it (with small family sizes, and suburbs based around first public transport and then the car). In the last couple of years maybe there’s been comparatively small increase in density in new developments—but it can hardly be called “higher”—plus the option for a small number of people who want to live in truly high density facilities in town, but I hardly think this sort of change would account for general crabbiness.

    In any case, when people are living in cities of millions, is it any surprise they’re more likely to find most of their friends and acquaintences don’t live around them?

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    November 2nd, 2009 06:18

    The other way of looking at this is not to look at the trend and look at the absolute number, which is pretty low for a state of 5.4 million people, and in itself suggests that all but a tiny minority of people get along fine with their neighbours. But we would need statistics on court disputes, police call-outs etc to calculate a more realistic level of neighbour disputes.

  • 10
    Ken N
    November 2nd, 2009 10:07

    Lazy journalists are not worth getting annoyed at any more.
    But careless academics are deserving of ridicule. Sure that get misquoted and qualifications dropped but they ought to be smart enough to handle it.
    They (and I’m not particularly aiming at JL here) do lower their reputation and that of their university with stuff like this.
    Some time, universities will start to get worried about association of their brand names with sloppy stuff.

  • 11
    JC
    November 2nd, 2009 10:55

    The other way of looking at this is not to look at the trend and look at the absolute number, which is pretty low for a state of 5.4 million people, and in itself suggests that all but a tiny minority of people get along fine with their neighbours

    How about the fact that people are respecting other people’s privacy and not finding themselves interfering in other people’s lives.

  • 12
    derrida derider
    November 2nd, 2009 15:48

    But then academics are models of specificity and careful testing compared to financial reporters. If I read one more tortured “explanation” of why the dollar (or the stock market, or any other inherently noisy series) went down yesterday I think I’ll puke.

  • 13
    JC
    November 2nd, 2009 16:14

    DD:

    I’m long stocks, having bought some on a short term indicator suggesting it’s close to the bottom of this range.

    Does that make you puke? (just joshing)

    You gotta admit that the explanation given by that academic is pretty weird stuff.

  • 14
    Rajat Sood
    November 2nd, 2009 17:13

    JC, I think a reference to one or more specific Sunday Life writers would have made my comment funnier. But these days, it seems you don’t know what vitriol to expect from humourless thin-skinned prima donna writers who troll the internet looking for any disparaging remarks made about them.