The New York Times Gets an "F" in Statistics Class

"'Lies, damned lies, and statistics' is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments." -- Wikipedia

The Tuesday, April 27, 2021, New York Times commentary by David Leonhardt gets an “F” in statistics class for its ridiculous use of numbers and graphs. Titled, “A Population Bust”, Leonhardt’s column goes full-scale ‘sky is falling’ to opine about the U.S.’ slowly decreasing population growth rate. But it’s the graph (below) in the column that makes Professor Wockner (me!) assign an “F” to this column.

First, the title is outright false. This graph absolutely does not depict the “Change in the U.S. Population Since 1790”. What the graph does depict is the ‘Change in the Growth Rate of the U.S. Population Since 1790’, a vastly different thing.

Second, the growth rate is going down, which is good thing. Had the growth rate of the U.S. population stayed above 30% — like it was in the year 1790 — there would be over two billion Americans right now with many of us living in the pre-covid crowding that was Manhattan.

Third, the graph — and the accompanying rhetoric — are a classic use of statistics to bolster a weak argument. Leonhardt — a “business reporter” — is obsessed with the idea that America isn’t growing as fast as it used to, and of course that is bad for business.

Let’s look at two more graphs using the exact same data. Every ten years the U.S. Census puts out data about how many MORE people were added to the U.S.

  1. The graph below depicts the actual data behind Leonhardt’s graph:

The red line is the number of new people added to the U.S. every ten years — it’s a long relatively steady and massively growing addition of new people every decade.

  1. The graph below depicts the actual total population in the U.S. every ten years:

The red line is the rapidly expanding U.S. population, also unseen in Leonhardt’s graph except for the data point at the far right.

In Leonhardt’s “Population Bust” column, his weak argument is that the sky is falling, America is a failing country, and both our national family policies and immigration policies need to change to dramatically increase the number of births and the number of immigrants.

Not happy to stop there, Leonhardt then pulls the “National Security Card” and says we are losing the economic war with China — America’s “supremacy” is challenged, he says — and our only sensible path forward is to get to 1 billion people as fast as possible.

I’ve been to China, and boy do I disagree.

I like wide open spaces, uncrowded roads, rivers with water and without pollution, lower taxes, more freedoms, and clear skies over the Rocky Mountains here in Colorado. I hope America’s population growth rate continues falling to reach absolute zero as soon as possible which would stabilize the U.S. population.

Just imagine the persuasive power of that number, “0”, and what it means — “stability”.

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Gary Wockner, PhD, is an environmental activist and a former university math teacher. Contact: GaryWockner.com