Due to some misadventures: In part due to misadventures in the snow, well postpose our ongoing series, Ourn and theirn, until tomorrow. Then too, there was Tamar Lewins report in the New York Times.
CONCERNING THE TIMES INTELLECTUAL HEALTH (permalink): Resolved: Mental and emotional health really do mattera lot.
Because we accept that basic premise, we were struck by Tamar Lewins above-the-fold, front-page report in todays New York Times.
Well admit itwe were grabbed by the headlines: Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen/Students Emotional Health is Rated in Major Survey. Beneath those headlines, Lewin started like this:
LEWIN (1/27/11): The emotional health of college freshmenwho feel buffeted by the recession and stressed by the pressures of high schoolhas declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago.
In the survey, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010, involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges, the percentage of students rating themselves as below average in emotional health rose. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.
Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened.
Wow! If we accept the notion that college freshmen can assess their own emotional health, this sounded like a real front-page story! Apparently because of the recent recession, the emotional health of these students is at its lowest point since this large survey began in 1985!
Lewin even included a statistic; it showed a substantial drop in these self-assessments over the course of those twenty-five years. Instantly, she cited an unnamed number of unnamed campus counselors who allegedly seem to agree with her thesis:
LEWIN (continuing directly): Campus counselors say the survey results are the latest evidence of what they see every day in their officesstudents who are depressed, under stress and using psychiatric medication, prescribed even before they came to college.
The economy has only added to the stress, not just because of financial pressures on their parents but also because the students are worried about their own college debt and job prospects when they graduate.
Be carefulthat passage is a bit slick! Obviously, college counselors do see students who are depressed/under stress every day; thats what theyre hired to do. But did these unnamed campus counselors say they are seeing more such students? Did they say they are seeing more stress and depression due to the economy? Youll note that Lewin doesnt actually say these things, though she seems to let readers think she has. Finally, she quotes one alleged expert who does advance her thesis:
LEWIN (continuing directly): This fits with what were all seeing, said Brian Van Brunt, director of counseling at Western Kentucky University and president of the American College Counseling Association. More students are arriving on campus with problems, needing support, and todays economic factors are putting a lot of extra stress on college students, as they look at their loans and wonder if there will be a career waiting for them on the other side.
According to this one observer, more students are arriving on campus with problems. The economy is putting a lot of extra stress on them.
One observer is quoted saying this; his statements may even be accurate. But Lewin is working from a ballyhooed survey, and the results of this survey dont seem to show a big change in self-assessments over the past few years. Inside the paper, on page A20, Lewins editors present two graphs derived from the survey (just click here). But uh-oh! Neither graph shows a large decline in self-assessment over the last several years. Are these graphs supposed to support Lewins thesis? For freshmen women and freshmen men, the number who say they felt overwhelmed during senior year in high school seems to be the roughly same today as it was in 1995. For each group, the percentage who rate their emotional health above average seems to be roughly the same as it was in the year 2000. In fairness: In this second category, there has been a bit of a dip in the past several years. But how large does that downturn seem to have been? In paragraph 16, Lewin finally offers her only attempt at supporting her theses with actual data from the actual survey in question. And uh-oh! The recent change Lewin describes strikes us as being quite small:
LEWIN: Paternal unemployment is at the highest level since we started measuring, said John Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at U.C.L.A.s Higher Education Research Institute, which does the annual freshman survey. More students are taking out loans. And were seeing the impact of not being able to get a summer job, and the importance of financial aid in choosing which college theyre going to attend.
We dont know exactly why students emotional health is declining, he said. But it seems the economy could be a lot of it.
For many young people, serious stress starts before college. The share of students who said on the survey that they had been frequently overwhelmed by all they had to do during their senior year of high school rose to 29 percent from 27 percent last year.
Are you kidding?
In that passage, the director of the agency which conducts this survey says that students emotional health is declining. And finally! Lewin finally presents some evidence from this ballyhooed survey; the number who said they were overwhelmed in high school did in fact bump up last yearby two percentage points! On this underwhelming basis, we get an above-the-fold, front-page news report, in which Lewin spends a great deal of time talking about the gender gap on these self-assessmentsan interesting issue which doesnt relate to her headlined thesis.
Emotional health is very importantbut intellectual health is crucial too. For both reasons, wed suggest that people should be unhappy with Lewins report.
Might we make a quick observation? To the extent that college freshmen can assess their own emotional health, a story does seem to lurk in the data Lewin provides. Here it is: There was a substantial drop in these self-assessments from 1985 through the late 1990s. Go aheadlook at those two charts again! In each case, the drop-off in self-assessment is steady during those earlier yearsand it largely levels off around the turn of the century. Presumably, this is why Lewin employed the full 25-year time span in the statistic she used early on in her piece. Presumably, unless she surveyed the full quarter century, she couldnt find a statistic strong enough to fuel a front-page report.
Lewin found a 12-point drop over the last quarter century. But if were discussing the last several yearsthe years of this countrys economic collapseit seems that strong statistics werent there for the pimping. Result? Late in her piece, Lewin gives one statistic drawn from the time period she is discussingand it shows a two-point decline in recent self-assessments!
Why would Lewin (and her editors) offer such a story? We cant answer that question. But please note: Over at Slate, Jack Shafer has virtually made a career calling out the New York Times for these bogus trend stories. We cant tell you what Shafer thinks of Lewins report. But for a recent Poynter review of Shafers eight years of previous efforts, you know what to do: Just click here.
Are college freshmen being affected by the recent economic collapse? Its entirely possible. Are they being affected enough to rate a front-page report? Lewin offers no such evidence, beyond a few subjective assessments by a few alleged experts. Meanwhile, how weak is the intellectual health of Lewin and her editors? Several analysts started to tremble and cry after reading this passage:
LEWIN: The annual survey of freshmen is considered the most comprehensive because of its size and longevity. At the same time, the question asking students to rate their own emotional health compared with that of others is hard to assess, since it requires them to come up with their own definition of emotional health, and to make judgments of how they compare with their peers.
Most people probably think emotional health means, Am I happy most of the time, and do I feel good about myself? so it probably correlates with mental health, said Dr. Mark Reed, the psychiatrist who directs Dartmouth Colleges counseling office.
I dont think students have an accurate sense of other peoples mental health, he added. Theres a lot of pressure to put on a perfect face, and people often think theyre the only ones having trouble.
To some extent, students decline in emotional health may result from pressures they put on themselves.
In the first three paragraphs of that passage, Lewin notes the difficulties involving in crediting student self-assessments. She notes a few similar problems later on in her piece. But so what? In the fourth paragraph of that passage, she goes right back to an unambiguous interpretation of these self-assessments; there has been a decline in emotional health, she unambiguously says, while failing to offer the data which would show how slight this alleged decline seems to have been in recent years.
Why do journalists present such reports? Again, well advance an obvious, but counter-intuitive and much-avoided fact:
Assuming reasonable good faith on their part, Americas highest-ranking elite journalists just plain flat-out arent real smart. This contradicts 2500 years of western world self-assessment. But its plainly true.
Over the years, weve been amazed by the way the wider world refuses to accept or discuss this obvious fact, which continues to threaten our nations well-being. Our journalistic elites just arent very smart! We keep avoiding this awkward fact, which is so blatantly true.
Further notes on the nations intellectual health: After last nights adventure in the snow, we watched Rachel Maddows opening lecture. And good lord, how The Doctor was IN! In just the first three minutes of last nights program, we were handed these supremely confident, though largely bollixed assertions:
MADDOW (1/26/11): The story of modern American politics writ large is the story of your fathers and your grandfathers Republican Party now being way to the left of todays leftiest liberals. If Dwight Eisenhower were running for office today, he would have to run, Im guessing, as an independentand not as some Joe Lieberman, in between the parties independent. Hed be a Bernie Sanders independent.
In 1982, who passed the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history? That would be Ronald Reagan.
Who called for comprehensive health reform legislation during in a State of the Union address in 1974, a program that was well to the left of what either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama ultimately proposed? That would be Richard Nixon.
Eisenhower and Reagan and Nixonthey were not the liberals of their day. They were the conservatives of their own time.
But the whole of American politics has shifted so far to the right in the last 50 years that what used to be thought of as conservative, what used to be thought of as a conservative position, is now considered to be off-the-charts lefty.
Over the past half a century, the center in American politics has gone further and further and further to the right. Halfway through Barack Obamas first term, his State of the Union address last night is being pretty universally hailed as centrist, as not too liberal, not too conservative, but right down the middle of American politics.
And that is something that Americans like to hear. The instant reaction polls to President Obamas speech last night were almost comically positive. CBS reported that 92 percent of the people who watched the speech approved of Mr. Obama`s proposals, 92; CNN reporting that 84 percent of people had a positive response.
Those sorts of numbers do not happen in politics. Those are crazy numbers.
In fact, those numbers are fairly typical for State of the Union addressesa fact that can easily be adduced from a simple Google search. Far more absurd was Dr. Maddows groaning political history. Were Eisenhower and Nixon the conservatives of their own time? Please. Eisenhower was the moderate of his own time; he defeated Mr. Conservative, Robert Taft, to take the 1952 Republican nomination, in a bitter battle between the GOPs two wings. For the rest of the era, he was assailed as a Communist by the right wing of the day, not unlike Obama today.
(This only happened after Draft Eisenhower movements had arisen in both major parties, in 1947 and in 1951. As with Colin Powell in 1995, no one knew which major party Eisenhower might choose to join.)
Was Nixon the conservative of his time? Well, not exactlyno. As with Ike, he stood in general contrast to the growing conservative movement inspired by Barry Goldwaterthe movement which has continued growing right to the present day.
The doctor was certainly right on one point, if we allow for some characteristic ridiculous overstatement. To a significant extent, the story of modern American politics really is the story of your fathers and your grandfathers Republican Party being to the left of todays liberals in certain ways. To cite a slightly misconstrued example: Early in her lecture, Maddow had quoted Eisenhower making the highlighted statement:
MADDOW: Listen to the way he goes after the right here. "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things, but their number is negligible andand the president saystheir number is negligible and they are stupid.
That is not what Barack Obama said last night. That is way to the left of any national Democrat at this point. That was all Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower. That was all the stuff he said when he was president.
Maddow failed to note a salient fact. When Eisenhower made those fiery statements, he was making a simple, accurate factual statement about the shape of American politics. In the 1950s, there really werent a whole lot of people who favored abolishing Social Security. But there are many such people today. This change has occurred, in large part, because the liberal/progressive/Democratic worlds have stumbled along for the past several decades under the yoke of intellectual leaders like Maddow.
The first three minutes of last nights lecture struck us hopelessly uninformed. From there, Maddow moved ahead to silly, invidious, incoherent comments about President Clintons vast perfidy, especially as compared to President Obamas vast greatness on Tuesday night. Presumably, the doctor doesnt understand the politics of the 1990s any better than those of the 1950s. But overall, her lecture was uninformed and largely incoherentthough it was delivered, as always, with an air of complete self-assurance.
Tomorrow, well be complimenting Maddow, at least as compared to certain aspects of Keith Olbermanns performance at Countdown. But good lord! How has our national politics managed to disintegrate to such an extent since the time of Eisenhowersince the time of those accurate factual statements?
You might read Krugmans Conscience of A Conservativeor you might watch our liberal cable channel in action! After that, do you still have to ask?