New Feature Here: Trend That Is Not A Trend

Some have asked me why I have not updated my climate blog in a while.  Frankly, the climate debate has become like the movie Groundhog Day, with the same handful of scientists releasing the same flawed studies making the same mistakes.  What used to be exciting is frankly boring.  I still blog here on updated climate news, and perhaps the IPCC will give us new things to write about soon, but for now most of my climate work will just be making appearances and presentations  (let me know if you have a large group, I don't charge any sort of fee).

For a while now I have been contemplating a new focus area, perhaps even a new blog.  I call this new focus "trend that is not a trend."  It refers to the tendency I find in the media to cite a trend without any supporting data, sometimes even when the actual trend in the data turns out to have the opposite sign.  Sometimes the reporter is motivated by conventional wisdom, sometimes by passion in advocating for a certain issue, and sometimes they are fooled by their own coverage, mistaking increases in coverage of a phenomenon for increases in the phenomenon itself (for example, this year everyone believes wildfires are up, when in fact this is a very low year).  We get a lot of this type of thing in climate, so it will give me a chance to continue to blog on climate but from a slightly different angle.

The best way to explain the phenomenon is with an example, and the Arizona Republic presented me with a great one today, in the form of an article by Joan Lowy of the Associated Press.  This in an article that reads more like an editorial than a news story.  It is about the Federal requirement for railroads to put safety electronics called Positive Train Control (PTC) on trains by a certain date.  The author has a pretty clear narrative that this is an absolutely critical piece of equipment for the public good, and that railroads are using scheming and lobbying to unfairly delay and dilute this critical mandate (seriously, I am not exaggerating the tone, you can read it for yourself.)

My point, however, is not to challenge the basic premise of the article, but to address this statement in her opening paragraph (emphasis added).

Despite a rash of deadly train crashes, the railroad industry’s allies in Congress are trying to push back the deadline for installing technology to prevent the most catastrophic types of collisions until at least 2020, half a century after accident investigators first called for such safety measures.

The reporter is claiming a "rash of deadly train crashes"  -- in other words, she is saying, or at least implying, that there is an upward trend in deadly train crashes.  So let's ask ourselves if this claimed trend actually exists.  She says it so baldly, right there in the first seven words, that surely it must be true, right?

Here is the only data she cites:

The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 27 train crashes that took 63 lives, injured nearly 1,200 and caused millions of dollars in damage over the past decade that officials say could have been prevented had the safety system been in place.

Astute readers will note that this is not a trend, it is one data point.   Has the number increased or decreased over the decade?  For comparable decades, are 27 crashes and 63 deaths a lot or a little?  Is it a "rash", or a tapering off?  We have no idea.   As we get further into this series, readers will be surprised at how often the media uses single data points to "prove" a trend.

The only other evidence we get of a "rash" are three examples:

  • The July high speed rail accident in Spain, which killed scores of people.  Of course, readers may note that she actually had to go to another country for her first example, an example involving high-speed passenger rail which has very little in common with private railroads in the US.
  • A 2008 crash blamed on inattention of a Metrolink driver -- a government employee on a government train, which sort of undermines the basic thrust of the story that this is about evil private railroads using lobbying to endanger the public.  Few readers are likely to consider a 2008 crash to constitute a recent "rash."
  • A 2005 crash at a private freight railroad that killed 9 people from a chlorine gas leak.  Fewer readers are likely to consider a 2005 crash to constitute a recent "rash".

So let's go to the data.  It is actually very easy to find, and I would be surprised if Ms. Lowy did not actually have this data in her hands.  It is at the Federal Railway Administration Office of Safety Analysis.  2013 data is only current through June and seems to be set up on an October -September fiscal year.  So I ran the data only for October-June of every year to make sure the results were comparable to 2013.  Each year in the data below is actually 9 months of data.

By the way, when one is looking at railroad fatalities, one needs to understand that railroads do kill a lot of people every year, but the vast, vast majority of these -- 99% or more -- are killed at grade crossings.  People still do not understand that a freight train takes miles to stop.  (see postscript below, but as an aside, I would be willing to make a bet: Since deaths at grade crossings outnumber deaths from collisions by about 100:1, I would be willing to bet any amount of money that I could take the capital the author wants railroads to invest in PTC and save far more lives by investing it in grade crossing protection.  People like Ms. Lowy who advocate for these regulations never, ever seem to consider prioritization and tradeoffs.)

Anyway, looking at the data, here is the data for people killed each year in US railroad accidents (as usual click to enlarge any of the charts):

click to enlarge

So, rather than a "rash", we have just the opposite -- the lowest number of deaths in a decade.  One.  I will admit that technically she said rash of "fatal accidents" and this is data on fatalities, but I'm going to make a reasonable assumption that one death means one fatal accident -- which certainly cannot be higher than the number of fatal accidents in previous years and is likely lower.

Most of you will agree that this makes the author's opening statement a joke.  Believe it or not -- and this happens a surprising number of times -- this journalist is claiming a trend that not only does not exist, but is of the opposite sign.  But let's go further with a few other charts.  Maybe we just got lucky and there is a rash of accidents but just not fatal ones:

click to enlarge

Not only is there not a "rash" but the number of accidents have actually been cut in half.   But let's give the author one last try at a benefit of the doubt.  She says the technology she is advocating reduces human error caused accidents.  The FRA actually tracks these separately.  I wonder what that trend is?

click to enlarge

LOL, if anything it declines more.    The only thing I can possibly find in her favor is that number of train accident injuries spiked in 2013 after 10 years of declining, but since fatalities and accidents went down, the odds are this is a statistical anomaly and not part of any trend.

Postscript:  To my point above, 1 person died from train accidents in the last 9 months or so.  We don't know why or how they died, but let's just say it was preventable by PTC.  The author is therefore castigating railroads for not racing ahead with hundreds of millions to prevent one death, when the railroads know their chief focus for reducing preventable deaths should be on the 588 other people who died on the railroad in the same period, mainly from grade crossing and trespasser/pedestrian accidents.

  • HenryBowman419

    Regarding the media, it's all about manufacturing crises in order to keep interest alive (and the monies flowing). Nicely pointed out by the late Michael Crichton in State of Fear, which I recommend if you have not read it. As David Brinkley supposedly remarked (I paraphrase), "whether the news on a particular day is earth-shattering or mundane, we have to give it to you with the same serious emphasis."

  • MingoV

    There you go, using logic and facts to rebut sensationalism. Never works.

  • http://matthewjudebrown.com/ Morven

    I notice that earlier in the article, it's pointing out donations to politicians from railroad-connected companies, including Berkshire Hathaway (BNSF's parent company, but ignoring the fact that Berkshire Hathaway is a large conglomerate and the railroad is only one part of it); only near the bottom does it note that BNSF is actually going to meet the original deadline anyway.

    So ... it's unlikely Berkshire Hathaway's BNSF has anything to do with it?

    The big operators are probably going to be able to make the original deadline -- they have the income to easily pay for it. It's the smaller companies that might struggle.

  • mesocyclone

    As far as I can tell, most reporters have no critical thinking abilities, are innumerate, and don't care about precision. It's all about the narrative, and the narrative creates the trend.

    Some years back an AZ Republic reporter (editorialist in disguise) wrote that a new refinery to be build at Mobile was being blocked by a threatened "environmental racism" lawsuit. The article said that Mobile had been founded by former slaves from Mobile, AL.

    What the writer didn't do was go to Mobile (I did) and notice that nobody lived anywhere close to the proposed site. The author also failed to check the US census which showed zero blacks in the Mobile census tract.

    No matter... the refinery was stopped.

  • obloodyhell

    }}} The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 27 train crashes that took 63 lives, injured nearly 1,200 and caused millions of dollars in damage over the past decade

    Y'know, even without reading ANY further -- and I'm sure the rest will be quite informative -- that doesn't sound like that much for 10 years of data

    It really does not. Before reading on, the first thing that comes to my mind is... How much money is this new system going to cost?

    "Oh, you can't put a price on lives!!"

    Bovine Excreta. Insurance companies do it all teh time. Courts do it all the time. Juries do it all the time.

    People do it all the time ON THEMSELVES when they choose how much life insurance to carry!!

    So the question here is, how much does this safety system cost vs. the amount of money/lives it will save? My bet is... not much, maybe nothing. Particularly if whoever handles the insurance on these train wrecks, including liability on the deaths in question, isn't pushing for it, too.

  • obloodyhell

    }}} People like Ms. Lowy who advocate for these regulations never, ever seem to consider prioritization and tradeoffs

    Hhmmmm. What corporation(s) produces the safety equipment being pushed for? Do they have any financial connection to Ms. Lowy?

    Jus' Wonderin'....

  • Benjamin Cole

    Trends...facts. They get in the way.

    Was what the trend or real threat of terrorism, for example?

    We lose 30,000 Americans a year in auto accidents, another 18,000 by gunshot and 16,000 by bad drug prescriptions.

    3,000 died in 9.11. Were there coordinated follow-up attacks to 9.11? Not that i saw. All foiled by the NSA, right?

    But, according to Harvard, we have spent and incurred $6 trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq wars. That is serious money.

    Because of the perceived threat of terrorism (fanned by the media and people who made a lot of money from that received threat, btw) we spent $6 trillion. And we are still spending money on Afghanistan, although to what end no one seems to know...or to know if Iraq is an ally any more or not....

  • peter horne
  • marque2

    9/11 did more than just kill a handful of people in skyscrapers. It directly caused 200 billion in damage and indirectly caused about a trillion in damage due to the economic collapse. I am sure quite a few people died because of the economic repercussions from that event.

    9/11 also started the government goosing the economy causing a series of bubbles which eventually led to collapse in 2007.

    9/11 probably indirectly killed many more folks than died in auto accidents in a year or two.

  • marque2

    I think she can get away with it at this point because we all still remember the town blown up by train in Canada. People will use their fussy feelings rather than logic to evaluate her article.

  • Jess1

    She's not a "reporter" - she's a "mouthpiece", repeating press releases (google isn't her friend). This PR is from GE Transportation, who's looking to sell more of their ITCS system that they lobbied onto Amtrak in Michigan (IIRC). It's an expensive joke that Lorenzo lobbying heavily for (and, oddly enough, who is a supporter of the current Administration. Go figure. )

  • alanstorm

    So government is solving a problem that doesn't exist? Shocking. Really.

    It's the same logic the anti-gun folks use - claiming an epidemic of firearms deaths, when the trend for 2 decades has been lower deaths as carry laws have proliferated. You'd think that those who proclaim themselves to be the smart ones would be able to figure it out.

  • Matthew Slyfield

    Not just life insurance. If you play a sport and someone offers you a piece of safety equipment that will reduce your risk of a fatal accident by 1%, how much would you be willing to pay for that? It's fairly easy to calculate what you think your life is worth from the answer.

  • MNHawk

    This whole exercise proves once again that journalism is a profession that's utterly corrupt. It wasn't that long ago someone who just made things up was driven out in shame...note Jayson Blair.

    Now that I think of it, it wasn't that long ago is someone in science was caught fudging the data, even unintentionally, they were driven out of polite society...think Pons & Fleischmann.

  • GlowballWarming

    She is a journalist so facts do not matter, data does not matter and numbers are very difficult anyway - which is probably why she took Journalism instead of Science.

    She has an agenda and believes she can just make sh*t up if she believes it supports her self determined righteous cause.

    Same "thinking" that drives environmentalists . . . they are doing good as they see it and therefore can lie, invent, or exaggerate, as long as it makes the case they believe in and want us to submit to.

  • c_andrew

    So, let me guess. This is the same reporter that broke the story on the teen rainbow party trend, right?

    Okay, I'll turn the snark off. But it seems she has the same intellectual rigor that went into that enterprise.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_party_(sexuality)

  • Rick C

    Not only that, but 9/11 only killed 3,000 people because the buildings were stronger than anticipated. Had they collapsed immediately, as was the goal, more like 50,000 people would have died.

  • Sam L.

    Had a saying where I worked for 4 years--one example is a trend.