On loneliness and lousy newspaper citation

From the Moveable Type blog; still entertaining how much linkrot has set in with the search engines, nine years on.

I come across this story on Americans’ general loneliness from the Washington Post:

Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago, and a sharply growing number of people say they have no one in whom they can confide, according to a comprehensive new evaluation of the decline of social ties in the United States…

The comprehensive new study paints a sobering picture of an increasingly fragmented America, where intimate social ties — once seen as an integral part of daily life and associated with a host of psychological and civic benefits — are shrinking or nonexistent. In bad times, far more people appear to suffer alone.

“That image of people on roofs after Katrina resonates with me, because those people did not know someone with a car,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociologist who helped conduct the study. “There really is less of a safety net of close friends and confidants.”

My first response to this story is, well, I fight against the loneliness for a REASON. I see so much of this in my own life, and it’s a CONSTANT fight to make sure I have people around me who can be that kind of support structure. I’ve known people for whom I can see that I was, or am, the entire support structure; it sucks, frankly.

My second response is: I wonder how exactly they pulled this off. And this gets to my major beef with science reporting. It’s always written for somebody who wants to pop into the article, say “ooh, that’s interesting”, and move on with their lives. There’s no tools given in the reporting for somebody to find their own further information.

I’ve been coming to the conclusion that, while learning raw facts and problem-solving skills is really important (and a rather fundamental part of what I teach), the even more important skillset for me to give a person in the academic environment is resourcing – starting from point X, going to the library or to the ‘net and getting deeper information.

And it doesn’t happen much anywhere in the academic world, because we’re so obsessed as teachers with evaluating how many facts our students get and how many problems they can solve in X amount of time.

In this day and age, we have several really highquality tools at our disposal for getting this kind of information. Let me bring one of those to bear here – I’ll go to Google, the engine we all know, and note that the woman quoted above is named Smith-Lovin, and the research she’s talking about is cited…

The results, being published today in the American Sociological Review, took researchers by surprise because they had not expected to see such a steep decline in close social ties.

…in the American Sociological Review. Hey, GOOGLE!

American Sociological Association | ASA Journals Home

American Sociological Society – Home by Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin,
and Matthew E. Brashears (American Sociological Review, June 2006)
http://www.asanet.org/page.ww?section=Journals&name=ASA+Journals+Home – 135k –CachedSimilar┬ápages


Hey, first hit, even. I coulda said “I’m Feeling Lucky”. :)

And, of course, when I go to the ASA Journals homepage, I find a front-and-center link to the article itsownself.

And you can get even more stunning numbers in there. In 1985, the number of people who claimed that they had no confidant whatsoever was 10% – still awfully dang high for a civilized country. When the study was repeated in 2004, the number was 24.6%. Roughly one quarter of the people in the United States don’t have a single person they talk about important matters with.

In 1985, 80.1% of all people had a confidant outside of their immediate families. In 2004, 57.2% did.

There’s some really hard-core stats in the formal article, too – and part of the reason you don’t throw out an article of this sort to the masses is, after a while, 23 pages on statistics on social isolation (and the regression of the social isolation data, and criticism on how such a large shift over 20 years’ time could possibly be real) can get really overwhelming. But there needs to be better care taken to get the basic resources in front of people.

If nothing else, which sounds more authoritative? “Studies say that…” or “Matthew Brashears studies sociology at the University of Arizona, and Lynn Smith-Lovin studies sociology at Duke; together, they have found that…”?

(Maybe it’s just that I’ve heard the phrase “Studies say that…” too many times in my life.)