December 10, 2012

Ecological Fallacies

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

 I’m one of those people who still reads the print newspaper. Actually, I read three of them, and am periodically aware of how they present the same news story in such different ways.  Sometimes it takes looking at a variety of different sources to see how the presentation of a new research study can be misleading thanks to word choice or conclusions that the reporter draws that the study itself actually does not make.

For instance, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) they had some fascinating findings on abortion rate trends.

The CDC noted that “Compared with 2008, the total number and rate of reported abortions for 2009 decreased 5 percent, representing the largest single year decrease for the entire period of analysis,” and … “From 2000 to 2009, the total number, rate, and ratio of reported abortions decreased 6 percent, 7 percent, and 8 percent, respectively, to the lowest levels for 2000–2009.”

The CDC report concludes that, based on many different studies, the reasons for the drop include availability of abortion providers, various laws and regulations (e.g., state regulations, parental involvement laws, legal restrictions on abortion providers), increasing acceptance of non-marital childbearing, shifts in the racial-ethnic population, economic changes, and last but not least, fertility preferences and access to health care services such as contraception.

The Los Angeles Daily News reported the following:

 “Abortions fall in U.S.Abortion

Abortions fell 5 percent during the recession and its aftermath. The decline may be due to women being more careful about birth control during tough times.” 

Nowhere in the CDC report did it mention that women would be more “careful” during “tough times.” As noted above, the report focused on larger-scale explanations based on the data available. For the rest of the article, the Daily News  stuck more closely to the conclusions cited in the CDC report.

This type of suggestion makes a number of assumptions about women without data for support, presuming more about birth control than abortion. This statement is also a great example of a an ecological fallacy.

An ecological fallacy an error of logic that occurs when you draw conclusions about individuals based on aggregate data. When we have information on a large group of people, as we do here, we can’t draw conclusions about personal choices individuals make. While we might construct hypotheses about individual-level behavior, we would have to conduct further research to know if indeed this is why abortion rates fell.

Note how the reasons mentioned by the CDC all have to do with societal or structural issues, not with individuals or their decisions. Public policies have a major impact on abortion rates. When state and federal policies about abortion change, we are likely to see changes in abortion rates as access to this procedure change. Nowhere does the CDC data indicate nor should we assume that women are careless about birth control during good economic times and more careful during tough times.

It’s tempting to think about individual explanations for social changes, in large part because many of us are unaccustomed to thinking about social structure, a key component of any sociological imagination. Although abortion is very controversial and it may be tempting to create our own hypotheses explaining why rates rise or fall, it is vital to base any of these conclusions on data and not assumptions.

What other ecological fallacies can you think of that attempt to explain large-scale phenomena with small-scale explanations?

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