Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Trump assaults data, gays, science, and reality itself

Last week the internet outrage machine in my corner of the world lit up with the news that the Trump administration had deleted a demographic question about LGBT identity from the 2020 Census. There were petitions:
Tim Teeman at The Daily Beast did a great job of explaining why for many gay people, this felt such a personal assault.

If you want to understand the anger felt over the news that LGBT people not being counted in the 2020 Census, consider this: if you are straight you have always counted. You have no idea what it is not to be counted, or not to count, or what the implications of not being counted may be.

For you, it just happens.

The LGBT population, on the other hand, has been consistently discriminated against, and consistently made invisible. It has consistently been under legal and physical threat. It has had to fight for visibility.

As Harvey Milk said, coming out is the most potent thing an LGBT person can do. Showing that we are here, that we are present, is the most powerful statement of all. This visibility has never been enumerated. No-one’s ever figured out how to definitively. You might have thought the Census Bureau would be best positioned to. Apparently not.

Teeman has nailed how this hits us.

Yet I admit I was skeptical about the report and I certainly hold no brief for the administration. In the 1990s I worked at a think tank that tracked issues of race and public policy. We were very aware of and interested in an emerging debate about whether the Census should offer respondents the option to describe their racial identity as "mixed." On the one hand, a great many people -- being in California lots of them in our office, in fact -- describe themselves that way. On the other hand, allowing such an answer guaranteed statistical chaos. At worst, we might cease to have more than a vague idea of how many people of what "races" were part of the population. The racial categories had changed many times over the country's history. Every change had been fraught. As pressure built for the change, it became obvious that responsible social scientists weren't going to leap into one; changes to Census categories take at least a couple of decades to mellow before they are finalized. (A "mixed" race category was added in 2010.)

So I was a little surprised that a population whose legitimate place is still contested (in over half of states, gay people can get married but we can be fired for being out) was being included so fast. And that skepticism was probably well-founded. Ben Casselman at 538, where they've made it their job to know their data science, interviewed census experts:

... they doubted the census had been close to adding questions on those topics in any case — regardless of who was in the Oval Office — although they also said it is possible Trump’s administration could make such additions less likely in the future. ...

Gary Gates, a demographer who has long advocated for collecting better data on the LGBTQ population, said adding questions to the census or ACS [American Community Survey] requires an extensive vetting and testing process that usually takes years. And Gates, who served on the Census Bureau’s scientific advisory committee until last year, said the bureau is especially wary of adding potentially controversial questions at a time when its surveys are already under political scrutiny from some Republicans in Congress.

“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that there was never a plan to add sexual orientation or gender identity to the 2020 census,” Gates said. “That just wasn’t happening. It wasn’t even being considered.”

If the history of the Census is any guide, It might get there ... perhaps just as a numerically more significant number of people start to identity as neither "male" nor "female," throwing additional categories into statistical chaos.
There do seem to be two government-sponsored surveys from which gays have been erased. These were under the purview of former Congressman and Obamacare's eager destroyer Tom Price at the Department of Health and Human Services. A friend who tracks elder research pointed out that apparently a question that asked about sexual orientation disappeared from a questionnaire about support and nutrition programs for older adults. And data collection about LGBT disability provision by Centers for Independent Living has also been excised from a form. The LGBT Research and Communications Project at American Progress outlines these excisions.

So something (bad) is happening to data collection on LGBT people under the Trump regime.
We're all the more ready to believe that the administration has declared war on collection of LGBT statistics because we know they are disappearing vital scientific data. Victoria Herrmann is an Arctic researcher who has described what it is like to have the Trump anti-science crew deleting the web archives to which citations in science work point:

At first, the distress flare of lost data came as a surge of defunct links on 21 January. The US National Strategy for the Arctic, the Implementation Plan for the Strategy, and the report on our progress all gone within a matter of minutes. As I watched more and more links turned red, I frantically combed the internet for archived versions of our country’s most important polar policies. 

I had no idea then that this disappearing act had just begun. 

Since January, the surge has transformed into a slow, incessant march of deleting datasets, webpages and policies about the Arctic. I now come to expect a weekly email request to replace invalid citations, hoping that someone had the foresight to download statistics about Arctic permafrost thaw or renewable energy in advance of the purge. ...

Fortunately, scientists foresaw that this vandalism might happen, so much data was preserved during the regime transition.

National March for Science in Washington, April 22
Find one of 428 satellite marches near you.
San Francisco March

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