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WalletHub is heard from, again

Last week I commented here on a survey by an outfit called WalletHub that ranked Parhrump and two other Nevada communities as three of the worst places in the nation.

Nevadans are hardly unaware of our poor quality of life. It is a local cliche that we rank high on lists where you want to be low, and low on lists where you want to be high.

Suicide, crime, health, substance abuse-related death, children’s health, health generally, homicide against women, rate of working people in poverty, toxic releases – Nevada ranks poorly in all of them. But we know of those things because of careful surveys that use narrow data to give us narrow conclusions. WalletHub didn’t do that. It used narrow data to reach ridiculously broad conclusions.

Here’s a response I got from WalletHub’s Diana Popa about my column last week:

“The WalletHub report referenced in this opinion piece was not a survey, as the author claims, but rather a data driven analysis of 1,268 cities with between 25,000 and 100,000 residents based primarily on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Bureau of Investigations. While we always appreciate the opinions of readers and residents regarding such rankings, we do not feel that it is appropriate to resort to childish name-calling simply due to one’s hometown not faring as well as he or she may like. That is especially true when a critic doesn’t take the time to even review the report in detail or determine whether certain claims actually can be substantiated.

“WalletHub’s research reports are regularly quoted by the nation’s largest news outlets for a reason, and it’s not because everyone except the author of this article is ‘dumb.’ Rather, it’s because they’re the product of in-depth analysis of data from reputable sources and have transparent methodologies.”

She added that reader could check out Wallet’Hub’s survey for themselves. Go to http://tinyurl.com/qfmp59j.

Now, of course, WalletHub IS a survey. Surveying is generally defined something like “a means of collecting quantitative information about qualities in a population.” Just because WalletHub harvests its information from OTHER suveys doesn’t mean that’s not surveying.

Second, Pahrump is not my hometown. I live in Sparks, one of the other towns named as deficient by WalletHub, and in my column I didn’t respond to the survey’s dissing of Sparks. I did point out a quality in Carson City to show how a limited sample of other people’s surveys can miss a lot. It’s one of the failings of surveys – and of those who are unsophisticated in reading surveys, which is most of us. One of the most famous demonstrations of the limitations of surveys was a speech Robert Kennedy made on his first day as a presidential candidate in 1968:

“Our Gross National Product … counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

When a survey limits its data to information from the FBI, labor statistics, and miscellanous census figures, and does not have people in the field, it’s going to produce a flawed portrait. It’s not just WalletHub that does this. It’s most of those outfits that rank BROAD qualities of life by NARROW categories. The only thing most surveys can rank with narrow data is narrow qualities – FBI figures only for crime rankings, say.

WalletHubs’s survey was so limited it did not allow for Pahrump’s quirky history in pop culture (from the Hollywood Madam to “Studio 60”), Sparks’s success in luring tourists – or our capital city, which has long since lost its longtime place as the nation’s smallest.

There’s probably a reason it lost that distinction.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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