Prof. Andrew Cherlin
Prof. Andrew Cherlin

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Demographers study things that are close to people's lives and about which there is great public debate, such as population growth, immigration, adolescent pregnancy and childbearing, racial segregation, the labor market, and gender equity.

Consequently the public often pays attention to our findings. Most of us value this aspect of our research. We want our findings to be widely disseminated; we want our research to inform important public discussions.

Too often, however, these public discussions are played out in a troubling pattern in which one extreme position is debated in relation to the opposite extreme. The pattern I am talking about applies broadly to a number of social issues. It passes through three stages. In the first stage, a social scientist presents an extreme view of a particular problem - it is either a total disaster or completely benign and his or her work receives great media attention. In the next stage, another social scientist, taking a different perspective, presents evidence for the opposite extreme. This viewpoint also receives great attention. And in the third stage, news coverage and public debates lurch back and forth between these extremes as if there were no middle position worth contemplating. I believe that this pattern of going to extremes impedes our understanding of social problems and that it is also a poor guide to sound public policies. One could argue that extreme statements are useful precisely because they attract so much attention to social issues.

One could argue that, in an era of wall-to-wall special interest groups, extreme statements are needed to mobilize a constituency. One could even argue that at a time when hundreds of television channels and millions of web sites compete for people's attention, extreme statements are necessary if one is even to be heard.

I would argue, however, that extreme statements invite counter extremes, with unexpected and often undesirable results. The best-known example in population research occurred during the debates about rapid population growth in the 1960s and 1970s. Some regard that time as the glory period of demography, and indeed demographic research helped to raise public awareness of a pressing global problem. But even in that era, extreme positions sometimes backfired. I would suggest that the exaggerated predictions made by Paul Ehrlich (1968) and others in the 1960s, foretelling widespread famine and soaring mortality rates, contributed to the rise of the opposite extreme in the late 1970s and 1980s: the Panglossian claims of Julian Simon (1981) and others that population growth, far from being a problem, was a positive element. Simon's arguments, I believe, had more force because he could easily refute some of Ehrlich's exaggerated claims (see Tierney 1990).

One could argue that the tendency to advance extreme arguments is built into the scientific method, which most demographers attempt to follow. The simplification of a complex problem is essential to a solid scientific theory: Unless your research allows you to simplify reality to some degree, you have not said anything of importance. Other approaches to the social world, however, do not emphasize simplification so strongly. Anthropologists, for example, with their grounded, ethnographic perspective, are much more concerned with thick description and broad understandings. In fact, this difference is a major reason why the introduction of an anthropological perspective into demography has been so beneficial. But I am not arguing that we should back away from the scientific research enterprise, nor that we should hesitate to identify important pathways when we find them. Rather, I am suggesting that we not overstate the importance of our perspectives. In attempting to learn the origins of complex social phenomena, perhaps the best advice we could follow comes from Albert Einstein, who said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler" (Jones 1996).

NumbersUSA.com is committed to accuracy and context in the use of statistics about U.S. population growth and its causes: In presenting projections of where our country is headed, we have chosen the middle-range projections of the Census Bureau.

Using Statistics Responsibly


There is a tendency for many who oppose the federally-forced population growth programs of immigration to use higher projections from the Census and from other sources. While a valid case can be made why some of these higher projections might be justified, the Census middle-range projection uses fertility, mortality and immigration numbers which are the closest to current numbers. Therefore, this projection is the one we most likely will experience if the current situation remains unchanged.

We believe that the incredible growth foretold by the Census middle-range projection should be frightening enough for most Americans to want to see a change in federal forced-growth programs.

We also know that the Census middle-range projection is based on an immigration level that is lower than the actual numbers now coming in. Thus, the projection frighteningly shown on the charts on this website most likely underestimate how bad the growth will be if Congress does not reduce immigration numbers.

NumbersUSA follows a philosophy of avoiding projections based on the lower or higher extremes of possibility as well as extreme interpretations. We feel the following address to the Population Association of America advances some ideas worth keeping in mind.

Andrew J. Cherlin, Dept. of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University, March 26, 1999., Presidential address to Population Association of America

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Ethics of Population and Immigration