Tuesday, June 28, 2005

we believe things when they fit in our view of the world

I came across a blog today while investigating the upcoming protest of Plattsburgh NY by Fred Phelps and Family AKA Westboro Baptist Church (more on this later). He restated something he read in the local paper that claimed there were 4,000 homeless people in NYC. He very simply believed this statistic. He seems proud of himself that the he'd known the estimate of 90,000 given by his college professor was way off, and pleased that his initial disbelief of it, and wonders at the impact on other students who believed
the number thrown out there by the admittedly liberal instructor and may have let that, and other unsubstantiated statements by their instructors, influence their ideologies in subsequent years.

Apparently, he didn't think twice about believing this number. It was clearly a much more believable number for him, and so merited no investigation. Tho' one might think that if one had a website/blog, they might be basically proficient in internet research.

So I was cranky, and didn't buy the 4,000 number. I lived in NYC for 3 years, my own experience said that there were more than that, by a factor of 10 or 20. I thought I'd look it up and email him the results.
At this point in the research and this story, I was simply mad at this guy for not checking his facts or reading the original article carefully enough to make him wonder if apples were being compared to oranges. Very hungry apples and oranges.

Had he pondered the incredible difference, or wondered at the genesis of this discrepancy, he could have simply Googled or Clusty'd the question.

So I did for him.
The FIRST response that came up in my search was a Coalition for the Homeless Fact Sheet
In February 2005 some 36,200 homeless men, women, and children were sleeping each night in the New York City shelter system, including 14,900 children, 12,600 adult family members, and 8,700 single adults. Thousands more sleep on city streets, park benches, and subway trains. Since 1998 the New York City homeless shelter population has increased by 72 percent, from 21,100 people in shelters each night to 36,200 people per night currently.
One of many advocacy research documents.

Even if one were disinclined to trust statistics put out by advocacy organizations, and presumed that the above liberal professor had friends in such liberal professions as social work and social justice, the simple fact of 36,000 beds being utilized each night would indicate that, hmmm, something is wrong here. But nope, not for this blogger, he bit into the 4000 figure right off, it proved his instincts were right all along and so a quick google was unnecessary.

The second result was a socialist newspaper. I skipped it without even looking, because if a professor at Plattsburgh State University was too liberal, this blogger would never
accept anything the socialists purported.

The third result was a WABC article in 2002 which noted the homeless population went over 30,000. Of course, they also cited the above advocacy organization, so maybe he wouldn't believe that either.

The fourth one tho', that's the NYC Department of the Homeless Services. And we all trust government statistics, so I was sure I'd find something to send him.

Their statistics page has several documents. This (pdf) is the result of a survey conducted by walking around the streets. It indicates they found 4,395 individuals who were on the street and not in shelters. It wasn't the homeless population, it was the population of people who weren't in a shelter that night, those that they could find.

So I'm grumpy, still mad at that original blogger for not checking things out before repeating them, but now the NYC survey smells incredibly rotten. Only 4,300 un-sheltered homeless? This smells like the kind of rotten that is on a 650 calorie energy bar that proudly advertizes Zero grams of fat as if ingested unused sugar isn't turned into fat in your body.

Even so, my ideology, my worldview means that I'm just as likely as the aforementioned blogger to believe what is most similar to what I already believe, so the right thing to do is to keep investigating.

Their search for volunteers went out like this:
Project HOPE 2005, the annual census of New York City's homeless, will take place on February 28th, when around 2000 volunteers will set out to assigned areas to count the number of street homeless they encounter between the hours of 10:30pm and 4am. The information and statistics gathered on this night are crucial to all policy-making and aid initiatives at DHS and throughout the City government for the remainder of the year.
They used a "scientific method." They divided the city into small areas, groups of city blocks, or a park, divided into low and high density (of homeless people), then walked through a RANDOMLY SELECTED AREA for four hours.

It's named much like a military operation naming aggressive action Operation Fuzzy Bunny of Freedom.

Project Hope. Like,
i hope i don't get mugged,
i hope I don't find any frozen dead people.
I hope i can count them from a distance.

That's like trying to estimate the gay people in Massachusetts by randomly sampling Taunton, Framingham, Turner's Falls, and Stockbridge, and one known high density area, say, the South End of Boston. But without counting the gay people where you know for sure they are, like, say, Provincetown, Cambridge, Northampton, you aren't going to get a statistically accurate anything.

I'm all ready to email him when I discovered that his identity didn't exist on his web page and it wasn't possible to email him. (tho' the subsequent use of whois led me to identify him as male).

So I opted to link to his plattsblog site and talk about it here.
Plus, now i'm mad at the NYC Dept for Homeless Services, helping M. Bloomberg lower the # of homeless people one statistic at a time.

Well, here's a lovely article by the Coalition for the Homeless about the under counting in this survey. They do a great job of debunking this silly idea of random sampling homeless people, methodological flaws, and other data.

So my blogging rant can stop

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