Tag Archives: Advocacy

Awareness of Awareness Statistics

I often talk about how we can become better consumers of information. One subtle way that information is often presented in a misleading manner is through what I will call “awareness statistics.” These statistics inform you about the number of people who “know of someone” who knows someone.

You hear these awareness statistics all the time. You hear that x of every y people know someone who has suffered from cancer, or abuse, or gun violence, or sexism, or ageism, or police brutality, or has been unfairly profiled, or has been burgled, or who uses personal pronouns.

While all of these issues I cited as examples are real and are important, drawing conclusions – both qualitative and quantitative – from these kind of awareness statistics can be very misleading. Worse, these kind of statistics are often intended to mislead, to exaggerate, and to induce a heightened reaction.

In very rare situations, awareness statistics can be legitimate. They can tell us how deeply a particular narrative has seeped into a population. It can tell us how many people are aware of a particular issue.

But that is not generally, or even often, the point of these statistics. Typically the point of citing such statistics is to serve as a surrogate for direct measurement. Rather than directly reporting the number of people who have been injured in motorcycle accidents, we report how many people know of someone who has been injured in a motorcycle accident. The intent is not to measure mere awareness, but to convey an impression of actual accident frequency.

The underlying problem is that awareness relationships in a population are extremely complex, highly uneven, and skewed. Some few people have many more relationships than others. We simply cannot correlate “awareness” with actual frequency in any straight-forward manner. If Britney Spears tweets about her bad hair day, millions of people know of someone who had a bad hair day. If Nicki Minaj tweets about her friend’s testicular reaction to the Covid vaccine, tens of millions of people “know someone” who had a terrible reaction to the vaccine.

Consider the example of sexual behavior. Experts strongly suspect that a relatively few men have relationships with a much larger number of women. No one knows the exact numbers, but let’s just make up some to illustrate. Let’s say that 1 guy has affairs with 10 women during a period of time. Each woman tends to share this information with 5 close friends. Now, when surveyed, 50 women report that they “know of someone” who has had an affair. It sounds like lots of guys are having affairs, but it’s really just that one really horny studmuffin. Most women are led to believe that lots of guys are having affairs and most of the guys are wondering why they are such losers at love.

So how should we assimilate such awareness statistics?

First, You should be skeptical whenever you hear awareness statistics. Actively skeptical. It is not enough that you merely be aware of their limitations, because they can still be successful in creating a lasting misleading impression despite your academic skepticism. You must not only be aware of their limitations, but actively suspicious of them.

You should always ask whether awareness statistics are being presented simply because we cannot measure the actual number directly. If that is the case, you should consider this to be no more than a very unreliable indicator.

But if awareness statistics are being presented despite the fact that the actual number can be directly measured, then you should assume that the intent is to manipulate your reaction. If advocates report that 2.5 million people know someone who knows someone who has been murdered, that sounds far more alarming then saying there were 1000 murders committed. It is their intent to alarm you when the raw numbers are insufficiently alarming.

Finally, resist the urge to accept statistical exaggerations when you support the cause and even when you think people need to be more alarmed. The problem is that the other side can play the same game. Anything you can exaggerate with awareness statistics, they can exaggerate just as easily. Sixty-five million people know someone who has been a victimized by cancel culture and 27 million people know of someone who was saved by a hero with a handgun.

Stay true to real facts. Don’t be swayed by manipulative statistics – especially when you believe in your heart that some exaggeration is warranted. After all, over 45 million people know of someone who knows someone who has been a victim of awareness statistics.

Better yet, just don’t use them at all unless you are a sophisticated demographer.

Why Advocates Fear Success

LettingGoWe often see it in parents. Parents expend much of their lives raising their children. More than raising them, passionately advocating for them at every stage. They have built a home around them. They have expended much of their wealth to help them grow. Their emotions and their self-identity are wrapped up in their role as parents. They have done everything possible to help their children to succeed. Yet, allowing them to actually succeed, to fly from the nest and diminish their own role as parents, can be those parents’ most difficult challenge.

Similarly, success is the most fervent hope of advocates, yet it can be the most difficult thing for them to accept. Letting go is often difficult not only for advocates, but even more difficult for advocacy organizations and for an entire advocacy movement. You became impassioned, you rallied, you worked much of your life, your built institutions, you fought many battles, maybe even bled, to advance your cause. It’s understandable that it can be hard to let go. Particularly hard when your advocacy is not only your passion, but all you know how to do. Even harder when your financial livelihood and the financial livelihood of so many others depends upon the continued necessity of those advocacy institutions you have built.

The result is that many advocacy groups have a very difficult time dealing with success or an evolving social situation that has made them increasingly irrelevant. Even when 99% of their mission has been achieved, or when far more important issues arise, they still insist they need more funding, more effort, more time, more dedication, because there is just so much yet to be done. They begin to minimize their own accomplishments and exaggerate the remaining problems, so as to justify their continued relevancy as activists.

All movements go through a life cycle, and retirement is not easy for any of them. But I’m not going to name names. I’ll leave that to you to consider. I will say that I myself have long been passionately active in the atheist movement. However, as greater acceptance of atheists has been achieved (although very far from sufficient), as Trump has emerged as an existential threat to Democracy in America, and as climate change has emerged as an existential threat to the planet, I gradually let go of atheism as my primary issue. It wasn’t easy. I did go through a stage where I insisted that atheism was still a vital cause because religion is so much a foundational issue enabling all these other problems. But even that argument, while valid, sounds clingy and desperate to me now compared to so many other immediate threats, like healthcare.

Speaking of healthcare, I do feel compelled to point out one specific case in point, Culinary Union Local 226 in Nevada. They strongly oppose Bernie Sanders because of his proposed Universal Healthcare Plan (see here). They have reportedly gone so far and to pressure and intimidate members who support Sanders.

By the light being shone in this article, it should be easy to see why they would so vehemently oppose Sanders. Let’s face it, while Unions advocate for their members on a wide range of issues, healthcare is their clear raison d’ĂȘtre. Since healthcare in America is so prohibitively expensive, and since while other abuses still exist these are no longer the days of Upton Sinclair, people are driven to unions largely for assistance with healthcare. If Sanders were to eliminate healthcare as a major problem, those unions would lose their major point of leverage. They would no longer be desperately needed by members to advocate for their healthcare.

In my opinion, Culinary Union Local 226 and others are not unlike parents who would rather undermine a daughter’s impending marriage than allow her to leave their nest for a better life. Even if you accept their argument that they are only advocating as best as they can for their members, they are shortsighted because their current “gold” healthcare plan is always at risk. Of course, from their perspective, the risk of losing it is why their members need to continue to support and fund them. And from a more principled perspective, their “we got ours” attitude is simply unconscionable for the good of our nation overall.