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.