Spit-takes and statistics in the news

I’ve written enough posts across the several blogs I’ve started at MPR News in the last few decades that are based on statistical models to challenge prevailing wisdom that I probably more than deserved the harsh whiplash of statistical based-news stories today that have left me scratching my head.

And I’ve rolled my eyes enough times when old-timers, chastising the use of slide rules and spreadsheets to replace what the eyes can see, screech “are you kidding me?”

That said, are you kidding me?

Three stories in the news today have enlarged the bald spot.

Move over Minneapolis, we’re going to Fargo
The biggest recipient of Hennepin County residents is not a warm-weather town, it’s Fargo.

I put this in the category of “statistically true, but , c’mon, who are we kidding?” category. Phoenix, Houston, and Florida are not attracting as many people as Fargo, the Census statistics say.

Once the post made it to social media, it was quickly translated into Fargo siphoning off the Twin Cities crowd, and that cold Fargo is more attractive to Hennepin County residents than warm anywhere else.

It’s probably not really true. First, there’s only one Fargo. But there are a lot of warm weather places that people can move to. That they didn’t all decide to go to Phoenix, doesn’t mean that they didn’t at all go to anywhere in Florida — where Minnesota’s money “winters” — or Texas. Or Iowa, for that matter.

Second, people who move from a city to a city, have a tendency to move to the closer city. That may be why the out of staters moving into Hennepin County, are mostly coming from the Chicago area. I’d guess that Boston and New York experiences the same relationship, and maybe even Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Duluth, the story notes, attracted people from surrounding counties, as well it should.

Statistics tell us the what, but they leave it to us to determine the “why.”

We’re guessing very few people are choosing to move to Fargo this winter when given the opportunity to be somewhere warmer. Nothing against you, Fargo.

Ricky Rubio is the worst player in the NBA

If people were late for work in Minnesota today, it’s only because they were cleaning up the collective spit-take when reading this morning’s Star Tribune. It documented the efforts of some MIT experts to come up with a new statistical model to evaluate NBA players.

It determined that the Timberwolves point guard is the worst player in the NBA and that the second-worst player is the Timberwolves’ Kevin Love.

Pardon me, for just a moment.

There’s no question that Rubio has been a huge disappointment, but even the most cynical basketball fan knows that he is not the worst player in the league. We have several even on this one team that further qualify.

Unemployment rate telling a much more hopeful story

The number of people who said that they had a job last month soared in January, the Wall Street Journal reports today, with the unemployment rate dropping to 6.6 percent. It’s great news if you didn’t have any job, but using the unemployment rate to evaluate the economy is now like using a player’s batting average to assess the worth of a baseball player.

Minnesotans have generally been shielded from just how bad the national economy really is. But a trip almost anywhere else in America will tell the story. The people who were forced out of good-paying jobs are making a fraction of what they once were. The benefits they once enjoyed are gone, and there’s a big difference between a 6.6 percent unemployment rate now and a 6.6 percent unemployment rate 20 years ago.

And that’s if you even buy the accuracy of the unemployment rate when it doesn’t include people who are unemployed but have given up looking for work in an economy that has no need for them.