We live in an information age in which an overabundance of data is available at our fingertips. But how reliable is that information?
A bit more than a week ago, the following article in the New York Times caught my attention.
I found the article’s headline statistic particularly arresting.
Social isolation is a growing epidemic — one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.
I was so disturbed by this statistic, that it stuck with me, and sometime later I quoted it in conversation with someone. But is the statistic true? What is the source?
The article in the Times contains a hyperlink that goes to an article at…slate.com. Hmmm. The Slate article is from 2013, and says the following:
Loneliness has doubled: 40 percent of adults in two recent surveys said they were lonely, up from 20 percent in the 1980s.
Despite the reference to two surveys, the article links to only one, a survey conducted by AARP back in 2010. That survey is available in pdf format here. The survey came to the following conclusion:
Overall, a little over one-third (35%) of the survey respondents were lonely, as measured by a score of 44 or higher on the UCLA loneliness scale.
So the real figure is 35%, not 40%. An interview in Fortune from last summer falsely inflates this figure a bit more, to “40% to 45%.”
Looking from a few different sources of data, it seems that way. The percentage of Americans who responded that they regularly or frequently felt lonely was between 11% and 20% in the 1970s and 1980s [the percentage varied depending on the study].
In 2010 , the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) did a nationally representative study in 2010 and found it was closer to 40% to 45%.
Note that the Fortune story also repeats the claim that only 20% were lonely back in the 1980s or 1970s. A search of the AARP report, however, turns up no references whatsoever to the 1970s or 1980s. I have no idea what the source is for this claim about lower rates of loneliness in those decades.
Furthermore, AARP did not perform a “nationally representative survey” of “adults.” AARP surveyed only “older adults” above the age of 45. The report says nothing about the happiness of Americans below the age of 45.
So to summarize, an AARP survey found that 35% of Americans over age 45 are lonely, and multiple prominent national publications turn that into 40% or 45% of all American adults, and add the claim, without citation, that this figure has doubled since the 1980s.
The New York Times no doubt considers itself the gold standard of professional journalism, but pulling headline statistics unverified from Slate, a clickbait webzine, doesn’t seem like best practice.
Loneliness might in fact be on the rise, but none of these articles offers any good reason for believing it.
In the modern world, we do have access to more information than ever, but pari passu, we also have access to more misinformation than ever.