The problem with statistics

I joined a psychoanalytic listserv years ago and while I no longer remember what the word “listserv” stands for I remain a member of this particular one because the information traded between the members is very useful. Discussions on the changes in medical insurance payment rates helped me to decide I was correct in no longer accepting insurance as a form of payment in my private practice. Occasionally there are even referral or treatment requests which has helped my business to grow over the years. It is because of one such referral that I am typing this right now.

I forget where exactly the patient seeking treatment was located but it was far enough to be outside my treatment area and while I normally just delete those emails something about this one caught my eye, possibly the fact that it was several paragraphs long, and I ended up reading the entire email.

The patient was not the person seeking the referral the patient’s parents were and they were seeking treatment for their son for the same reasons I have seen many patients for in the past. The patient is in his early 30’s and for lack of a more poetic way of putting it, has refused to mature beyond his teen years. He dropped out of high school but did get a GED (I can actually get behind this sort of thing as high school is stupid and always has been), enrolled and dropped out of several different college and trade programs, and basically these disparate parents want someone to “fix” their child who refuses to grow up, get a job, and move out of their house.

This is a subject of interest for me not only because I see these types of patients quite regularly but because I may or may not have a couple of those very same kids in my family as well. I have thought about doing some research on the subject, maybe writing an article, as a former professor used to say all the time, there is a dissertation in there somewhere, but I have never really taken it much beyond that realization period.

This time I just couldn’t shake the curiosity, how many people in this age group still live with their parents? I understand that in some cultures it is the norm, if not expected, that a child will live with their parents until they become married themselves, but as marriage in itself is experiencing the most severe decline since this sort of data started being collected, I couldn’t help but wonder. So I decided to take my wonder to the internet and see what google had to say about the subject.

The very first article was from the Pew Research Center and it was shocking. According to the article 52% of people aged 18-30 live with their parents. The second article stated the number was actually 58% but as that article was written by an insurance company and was mostly about retirement planning I dismissed it as too biased for my purposes, not that Pew Research can’t be biased but at least they weren’t trying to sell anything in the same article.

I checked the date of publication and as I suspected the Pew article came out right at the end of 2020, the hight of the Covid Pandemic. So the data was a bit out of date but still I found a dozen or more articles quoting that 52% figure and probably twice that number of political looking people quoting it. The most interesting was actually another Pew article which stated 60% of people think it is bad for the country that our young adults aren’t leaving their parents homes and 36% think it is bad in general.

Oh no, the sky is falling and out children refuse to grow up and move out.

I looked for some newer data, including the most recent US Census but of course that website is not so user friendly and the most recent census being only 2 years old it hasn’t really been compiled yet.

I found another article which stated the rate as of 2022 had retreated to 36%, which seems a bit of a stretch on the one hand but considering the number of business which closed and the number of jobs lost during the first year of the pandemic it seems understandable that the number of people in early career or college who do not have the savings power to remain independent through a prolonged quarantine period might be significantly higher than a more normal year like 2022. Also add to that people were scared because people were dying in huge number in this country it makes sense people would want to be with family.

I looked for data covering the time period when I was leaving high school (the late 80’s) and I found an actual US Census report which stated 32% of people aged 18 to 29 lived with their parents. Assuming the 36% figure is accurate that would mean over the past 30 years, with the exception of the pandemic period of 2020-2022, there has only been a 4% rise in the number of people in this age group who live with their parents.

I don’t care who you are a .13% rise per year over a 30 year period does not sound too bad to me. So why are some folks freaking out so much? the answer to that depends on which group you are referring to.

Some groups, such as the insurance company I mentioned earlier are trying to sell you something. Some groups want you to vote for them.

and that is the underlying problem with statistics.

Yes statistics allow you to compare data from multiple sources and to verify something (like a treatment) actually makes enough of a difference to matter and statistics is the only way to generalize information with accuracy. Unfortunately statistics can be manipulated both in the calculation and in the interpretation which makes them not just inaccurate but outright dangerous. Those of you old enough to remember when saccharin (SweetnLow) and red M&M’s were pulled from the market are old enough to see how statistics can be misused. In both of these cases information was presented in such a way as to make risk appear much higher than it actually was. In the case of what Purdue Pharma was shown to have done in the series “Dope Sick” was the same tactic but in the opposite direction, a tactic used by tobacco companies as well, that is presenting data in such a way as to make a product appear much safer than it actually is.

Statistics are often misused in another way and that is more common in my field. That is to take something which is an average based on sometimes very large populations and then use that average to label someone as “abnormal.” For example if 36% of all people in the United States aged 18 to 34 (a very large age range by the way) do in fact live with their parents that would mean that 64% don’t. Boiled down a little bit 3 of 10 live with mom and dad while 7 of ten do not.

Doesn’t seem like much of an issue when looked at that way, does it?

My advice to anyone who listens to anyone, yes that would include me and this blog right now, is to consider two things before you believe anything: 1. Consider the source. Who is saying this “fact” and why are they saying it? and 2. Where did this person get their information? There are a lot of really poor statistics being published all the time. This is for a variety of reasons we don’t need to get into here but take a look at them sometime. You would be amazed and how little of the actual data and math is listed in published articles.

There are also a lot companies paying to have research conducted which favors them or their industry. The pharmaceutical industry is a prime example here but why aren’t the only ones.

Lastly there are a lot of people who will take some piece of information so horribly out of context or limited in scope to render their “fact” meaningless. In the before time we would say, but boy does it sell papers! Now I guess you might call such people and articles clickbait.

So in the words of Jethro Gibbs, when it comes to people trust but verify. Or you run the risk of being one of these people who would post online that the reason why surgeons can wear a mask for ten hours during a surgery is because the operating room is pumped with a high level of oxygen. Or that the Mickey character from the old Life Cereal commercial died when his stomach exploded after he swallowed PopRocks and then drank a Coke……

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