Norwegians, Swedes, and statistical weeds

“A thousand Swedes ran through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.” Or so John has quipped. (I wonder what Mr. Lundquist and Mr. Orn would say about that).

In the case of this article by Jim Scanlan in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about differences in health outcomes in Norway and Sweden, statistics are the weeds. Scanlan cuts through them masterfully.

Norway and Sweden, two nations that pride themselves in “equality,” are home to some of the most glaring socioeconomic differences in rates of disease and death in Europe. It turns out, however, that the differences are a manifestation of a statistical phenomenon — reducing the overall frequency of an adverse outcome tends to increase the relative difference between the rates at which advantaged and disadvantaged groups experience that outcome.

We’ve discussed this phenomenon in connection with the theory of “disparate impact” discrimination. Civil rights activists are prone to attack, say, school disciplinary standards or the use of employment tests or standards on the theory that these policies disproportionately burden blacks. Often the remedy they seek is a relaxation of the standard.

But, as noted, reducing the overall frequency of an adverse outcome tends to increase the extent of the disparate impact. So the relaxation remedy typically will only increase the disparate impact. The invocation of “disparate impact,” then, is effectively a pretext for insisting that more blacks get a benefit or avoid a burden, not a call to reduce racial disparities (much less a call to reduce discrimination under a reasonable understanding of the term).

Scanlan ties his article to the Minnesota Department of Health’s recent release of a report to the Legislature titled “Advancing Health Equity in Minnesota.” Not surprisingly, the Minnesota bureaucrats and the local media have it wrong:

Even the report’s transmittal letter reflects a mistaken belief that improvements in health should reduce relative differences in adverse outcomes. Media commentary on the report sees a contradiction between the state’s low overall infant mortality rate and its comparatively large racial difference on infant mortality.

But a large racial difference in infant mortality should hardly be surprising in a state with the sixth-lowest white and seventh-lowest black infant mortality rates. In fact, many patterns identified in the report should be unsurprising — but they only will be if one knows what to expect in the circumstances.

What I expect in these circumstances is that Minnesota liberals will run through the weeds with these statistics as far as they can without caring about what they actually means.

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