Plus, the New York Times spots a pandemic: In the past few days, it has become our most frequently-asked question.
The question goes like this:
Is Commander Trump's recent bold action the start of a global conflagration—the conflagration future experts refer to as "Mister Trump's War?"
(As we've repeatedly acknowledged, that description has come to us from Future Anthropologists Huddled in Caves, a disconsolate group of future scholars who report to us through a set of nocturnal submissions the haters refer to as dreams.)
Have we just now seen the start of "Mister Trump's War?" We can't answer your question!
In the past few days, spokespersons for this future group have refused to speak to this point—though we did see Cassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, rolling her eyes late last night.
As we've said before, so we'll say once again. There is no precedent for what we may see in this coming year.
What might Commander Trump do this year? As we've noted before, there is no reason to think that he won't start a distracting war, the better to rally the public around the commander in chief with.
There is no reason to assume that he won't hack some voting machines himself, the better to suggest that an election he loses is invalid.
There is no reason to assume that he won't attempt to cancel this year's election. Also, there's no reason to think that the mainstream press will ever be willing to discuss the various possibilities concerning his mental health.
Meanwhile, the New York Times has done it again! The paper has spotted a "pandemic of mental illness" in these United States. Rather, it allowed Lee Siegel to announce this pandemic in an opinion column in yesterday's print editions.
Is our nation experiencing a "pandemic of mental illness?" With permission from an editor, Siegel proved it thusly:
SIEGEL (1/3/20): The American Psychiatric Association reported that from 2016 to 2017, the proportion of adults who described themselves as more anxious than the previous year was 36 percent. In 2017, more than 17 million American adults had at least one major depressive episode, as did three million adolescents ages 12 to 17. Forty million adults now suffer from an anxiety disorder—nearly 20 percent of the adult population. (These are the known cases of depression and anxiety. The actual numbers must be dumbfounding.)If you weren't depressed before reading the column, the piece may have taken you there.
The really sorrowful reports concern suicide. Among all Americans, the suicide rate increased by 33 percent between 1999 and 2017.
All of this mental carnage is occurring at a time when decades of social and political division have set against each other black and white, men and women, old and young. Beyond bitter social antagonisms, the country is racked by mass shootings, the mind-bending perils of the internet, revelations of widespread sexual predation, the worsening effects of climate change, virulent competition, the specter of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, grinding student debt and crises in housing, health care and higher education. The frightening environment helps cause depression, depression causes catastrophic thinking, and catastrophic thinking makes the environment seem even more terrifying than it is.
Siegel has spotted "mental carnage," first cousin to the "American carnage" of Mister Trump's inaugural speech. For ourselves, we thought we may have spotted a bit of "statistical carnage"—a type of carnage our greatest newspaper often seems to perform.
Next week, we'll examine the statistical carnage the Times committed to print in a recent opinion column about test scores in Mississippi. For today, here's the possible statistical carnage surrounding our nation's alleged "pandemic of mental illness:"
Increase in suicide rate: It's true! Very few people commit suicide, but the suicide rate did increase by 33 percent, if you choose 1999—the lowest point for the suicide rate in the past forty years—as the starting point for your statistical comparison.
If you choose 1986 as your starting point, the rate has barely increased at all. If you adjust for age, the increase from 1986 virtually disappears.
As a general matter, suicide is a very bad thing. So are statistical embellishments of this familiar type, based on the selection of a maximal starting point.
More anxious than the previous year: It's true! The APA did report that 36 percent of adults reported being more anxious in 2017 than they'd been the previous year.
The APA also reported that 20 percent of adults said they were less anxious in 2017. For what it's worth, this wasn't a measure of the type of anxiety which constitutes mental illness.
Major depressive episodes: It's true, or at least it may be true, depending on various factors! In 2017, "an estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode." Or at least, that was one finding in a major federal survey to which Siegel linked.
That said, what's a "major depressive episode?" It's "a period of at least two weeks when a person experienced a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, and had a majority of specified symptoms, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, or self-worth."
Presumably, it would be better if no one ever experienced such an episode. That said, the number involved represents 7.1% of American adults. According to the survey in question, only 4.5% of adults experienced "a major depressive episode with severe impairment."
Presumably, it would be better if no one did. But do those figures really describe a "pandemic of mental illness?"
Anxiety disorders: Is it true? Is it true that "forty million adults now suffer from an anxiety disorder?"
We have no idea! Though the Times let Siegel use the word "now," the data to which he links seem to be from the years 2001 through 2003. This is the careless way the New York Times routinely plays such games. (For the record, only 22.8% of those disorders were classified as "serious.")
Known cases v. the imagined: We're puzzled by the worried claim in which Siegel says this: "These are the known cases of depression and anxiety. The actual numbers must be dumbfounding."
That suggests that the actual numbers must be much larger than the numbers he has cited. But the numbers he cites aren't merely reported cases; they come from surveys of the total population.
Surveys can misfire in various ways. Presumably, the "actual" numbers may be larger, or the "actual" numbers may be smaller.
That said, we know of no reason to think that the actual numbers must be much larger—"dumbfounding," even. We have no idea why the Times let Siegel add this scary enhancement.
Corrections: At the bottom of Siegel's column, this correction appears:
Correction: Jan. 2, 2020In the rush to let Siegel declare a pandemic, the Times let that misstatement pass. If you've ever fact-checked the Times, you'll see this as par for the course.
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to a statistic about depression. The 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 17 million Americans had had a major depressive episode in the past year, not that 17 million had received a new diagnosis of depression.
(On January 3, a second correction sliced a bit of lunch meat extremely thin.)
Mental illness is a serious problem and an important topic. Unless you're reading the New York Times, where no topic is.
Everything will be embellished. Few factual claims will ever get checked.
This is where pandemics come from. With apologies to Jo March, these are our modern "sensation stories," and they're found all over the press.
Next week: Mississippi's rising scores on the Naep (with astounding journalistic misfeasance)