Mark Penn - Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes

A better title for this book would be something like "How to Manipulate Statistics to Make Them Mean Anything You Want." Seriously, only someone without any critical thinking skills would buy everything the authors say. They could be completely right with all of their conclusions. Just don't ask me to believe them based on the way in which the data is presented herein.

I should admit that I did not read this entire book. I knew on page 8 that I would not be able to read all of the contents. On that page a graphic is presented showing a column in 1997 and a column in 2003. The 2003 column is more than five times larger than the 1997 column. Pretty impressive evidence that an incredible trend is taking place, right? If you look at the fine print for the columns, however, you will find that the small column represents couples in which the "woman is at least 10 years older than the man." The tall column six years later showing incredible growth in this demographic is for couples in which the "woman is at least six years older than the man." In other words, apples are compared to oranges and the reader is supposed to believe that apples are trending into oranges. For all we know the number of women at least 10 years older than their partners has gone down in those six years, but there are a lot of women six, seven, eight, and nine years older than their partner (and there always has been). There is no way to tell with this confusing and deceptive data presentation.

So I began to distrust the author and skim. Skimming didn't help. Nonsense kept raising its ugly head even in skim mode. For instance on page 21 the authors argue that internet dating is no longer "embarrassing" or for the "desperate" and "lonely." How does one write to prove this? With statements like this:

"61 percent of online Americans do not consider online dating 'desperate.' Nearly half of online Americans think Internet dating is a good way to meet people."
Are you convinced? Had they wanted to prove the exact opposite conclusion they could have said the following using the exact same figures with the same effect:
"Nearly half of online Americans consider online dating 'desperate.' A majority of online Americans think Internet dating is not a good way to meet people."
They go on to state that "17 percent of online daters have turned online dates into a long-term relationship." Why not say that 83 percent haven't instead? 83 percent is a much higher percentage than 17 percent after all. But if you start with a conclusion and then have to work all the facts in to prove it presenting the facts objectively doesn't do much for your case.

Another problem with the presentation of data is the two data points trend the authors frequently rely on. Rather than show a trend with annual data for 10 or 20 years, they plop figures for two years down with the second year being a much higher (or much lower) figure. All of this proves nothing except that they picked the two extreme years and drew a line between them.

Yet another problem with the authors' presentation of data is the exclusion of data that doesn't fit their conclusions. For instance, on page 55, the authors attempt to prove that women-led religions are unpopular and religions excluding women clergy are growing rapidly. Their main example is the Mormon Church which has an all-male clergy.

Correlation does not indicate causation though. Mormonism hasn't grown because of their ban on giving women the Mormon priesthood. If anything, that discriminatory doctrine has been a major detriment to their growth. The reason Mormons have grown in number is the practically compulsory missionary program. On a side note, once again the authors use a two year data set (1960 and 2002). Mormonism for the past decade or so has actually been losing more members than they've been gaining in converts. Much of the Mormon growth happened decades ago. Convert baptisms peaked in the late 1970s and have been dropping rapidly since the late 1980s. The main reason they continue to increase membership count is through high birth rates and a lack of taking former Mormons off their records.

One of the fastest, if not the fastest (by percentage growth anyway), growing religions in the U.S. is Wicca which is not male led. The authors don't include it. Also, the Catholic Church is not shown in the graphic even though it excludes female clergy. Could that be because they didn't grow and hence would go against the authors' conclusion?

Hopefully you are getting the picture. Critiquing the analysis of Penn and Zalesne is like shooting fish in a barrel. Anyone with common sense, experience with data manipulation, or able to spot graph distortion can see through the "trends."

Life is too short for books like this. I'm moving on to something else.

from the publisher:
In Microtrends: The Small Forces Changing the World, Mark Penn shows that seventy-five of the most important trends in the world today are the smallest ones. Exploring everything from politics to religion, food to entertainment, Penn follows the numbers to uncover what's really popular, not what we think is popular. Because while these trends are shaping the world, they're relatively unseen they're under-the-radar forces that can involve as little as one percent of the population.

People have never been more sophisticated, more individualistic, or more knowledgeable about the choices they make in their daily lives. Yet it takes intensive, scientific study to find the logical patterns that underlie those choices. While helping you to refine your own trend-spotting skills, Penn pierces remarkably stubborn conventional thinking to find the counterintuitive trends that represent a portrait of society in the twenty-first century. A groundbreaking book about the way people think and how they act, Microtrends explores the practical implications of these seventy-five trends for politics, business and society itself.