Do rich people like bad data tweets about poor people? (Bins, slopes, and graphs edition)

Almost 2,000 people retweeted this from Brad Wilcox the other day.

bradpoorstv

Brad shared the graph from Charles Lehman (who noticed later that he had mislabeled the x-axis, but that’s not the point). First, as far as I can tell the values are wrong. I don’t know how they did it, but when I look at the 2016-2018 General Social Survey, I get 4.3 average hours of TV for people in the poorest families, and 1.9 hours for the richest. They report higher highs (looks like 5.3) and lower lows (looks like 1.5). More seriously, I have to object to drawing what purports to be a regression line as if those are evenly-spaced income categories, which makes it look much more linear than it is.

I fixed those errors — the correct values, and the correct spacing on the x-axis — then added some confidence intervals, and what I get is probably not worth thousands of self-congratulatory woots, although of course rich people do watch less TV. Here is my figure, with their line (drawn in by hand) for comparison:

tvfaminc-bradcharles

Charles and Brad’s post got a lot of love from conservatives, I believe, because it confirmed their assumptions about self-destructive behavior among poor people. That is, here is more evidence that poor people have bad habits and it’s just dragging them down. But there are reasons this particular graph worked so well. First, the steep slope, which partly results from getting the data wrong. And second, the tight fit of the regression line. That’s why Brad said, “Whoa.” So, good tweet — bad science. (Surprise.) Here are some critiques.

First, this is the wrong survey to use. Since 1975, GSS has been asking people, “On the average day, about how many hours do you personally watch television?” It’s great to have a continuous series on this, but it’s not a good way to measure time use because people are bad at estimating these things. Also, GSS is not a great survey for measuring income. And it’s a pretty small sample. So if those are the two variables you’re interested in, you should use the American Time Use Survey (available from IPUMS), in which respondents are drawn from the much larger Current Population Survey samples, and asked to fill out a time diary. On the other hand, GSS would be good for analyzing, for example, whether people who believe the Bible is the “the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word” watch TV more than those who believe it is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men” (Yes, they do, about an hour more.) Or looking at all the other social variables GSS is good for.

On the substantive issue, Gray Kimbrough pointed out that the connection between family income and TV time may be spurious, and is certainly confounded with hours spent at work. When I made a simple regression model of TV time with family income, hours worked, age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, and marital status (which again, should be done better with ATUS), I did find that both hours worked and family income had big effects. Here they are from that model, as predicted values using average marginal effects.

tv work faminc

The banal observation that people who spend more time working spend less time watching TV probably wouldn’t carry the punch. Anyway, neither resolves the question of cause and effect.

Fits and slopes

On the issue of the presentation of slopes, there’s a good lesson here. Data presentation involves trading detail for clarity. And statistics have both have a descriptive and analytical purpose. Sometimes we use statistics to present information in simplified form, which allows better comprehension. We also use statistics to discover relationships we couldn’t otherwise — such as multivariate relationships that you can’t discern visually. The analyst and communicator has to choose wisely what to present. A good propagandist knows what to manipulate for political effect (a bad one just tweets out crap until they get lucky).

Here’s a much less click-worthy presentation of the relationship between family income and TV time. Here I truncate the y-axis at 12 hours (cutting off 1% of the sample), translate the binned income categories into dollar values at the middle of each category, and then jitter the scatterplot so you can see how many points are piled up in each spot. The fitted line is Stata’s median spline, with 9 bands specified (so it’s the median hours at the median income in 9 locations on the x-axis). I guess this means that, at the median, rich people in America watch about an hour of TV per day less than poor people, and the action is mostly under $50,000 per year. Woot.

gss tv income

Finally, a word about binning and the presentation of data (something I’ve written about before, here and here). We make continuous data into categories all the time, starting from measurement. We usually measure age in years, for example, although we could measure it in seconds or decades. Then we use statistics to simplify information further, for example by reporting averages. In the visual presentation of data, there is a particular problem with using averages or data bins to show relationships — you can show slopes that way nicely, but you run the risk of making relationships look more closely correlated than they are. This happens in the public presentation of data when analysts are showing something of their work product — such as a scatterplot with a fitted line — to demonstrate the veracity of their findings. When they bin the data first, this can be very misleading.

Here’s an example. I took about 1000 men from the GSS, and compared their age and income. Between the ages of 25 and 59, older men have higher average incomes, but the fit is curved with a peak around 45. Here is the relationship, again using jittering to show all the individuals, with a linear regression line. The correlation is .23

c1That might be nice to look at but it’s hard to see the underlying relationship. It’s hard to even see how the fitted line relates to the data. So you might reduce it by showing the average income at each age. By pulling the points together vertically into average bins, this shows the relationship much more clearly. However, it also makes the relationship look much stronger. The correlation in this figure is .65. Now the reader might think, “Whoa.”

c2Note this didn’t change the slope much (it still runs from about $30k to $60k), it just put all the dots closer to the line. Finally, here it is pulling the averages together in horizontal bins, grouping the ages in fives (25-29, 30-34 … 55-59). The correlation shown here is .97.

c3

If you’re like me, this is when you figured out that reducing this to two dots would produce a correlation of 1.0 (as long as the dots aren’t exactly level).

To make good data presentation tradeoffs requires experimentation and careful exposition. And, of course, transparency. My code for this post is available on the Open Science Framework here (you gotta get the GSS data first).

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Do rich people like bad data tweets about poor people? (Bins, slopes, and graphs edition)

  1. What is “watching TV”? Does Netflix count? Amazon? YouTube? What about watching people play video games?

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    • It is just however people interpret the question “On the average day, about how many hours do you personally watch television?” One of the advantages of the more modern survey ATUS is it makes these distinctions.

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