The Topline: When innumeracy ruins lives

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Welcome to The Topline, a weekly roundup of the big numbers driving the Minnesota news cycle, as well as the smaller ones that you might have missed. This week: innumeracy; Stearns County home prices; Twin Cities population change; income stagnation; and homeowners insurance losses.

Innumeracy, at home and abroad

Last week the New Yorker reported on the case of Lucy Letby, the British NICU nurse convicted in 2023 of killing seven babies. The story casts serious doubt on a prosecution that relied heavily on wobbly statistics, circumstantial evidence and presumptions of guilt to arrive at a conviction.

Notably, the case against Letby was built around a simple correlation between events deemed “suspicious” after the fact and Letby’s work shifts. It’s an example of what statisticians call the “Texas sharpshooter fallacy”  — imagine a gunman who fires off a number of rounds at a barn, and then draws a bullseye around wherever the bullets are clustered.

People often look for patterns where they don’t exist in an attempt to understand a chaotic, messy world. An understaffed NICU treating fragile infants on the edge of viability is an especially chaotic place, and when a cluster of tragedies happens people naturally grasp for an explanation. The New Yorker story makes a compelling argument that in doing so the hospital administrators and the British court system ruined an innocent woman’s life.

Last week there was another jarring, if far less consequential, example of statistical innumeracy much closer to home. During a floor debate on the Judiciary and Public Safety omnibus bill, Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, introduced an amendment that would define “malfeasance” for county attorneys as follows:

doing any of the following in a higher percentage of cases than the statewide average as determined by the chief justice under section 351.17: agreeing to or proposing mitigated departures in felony criminal prosecutions; dismissing criminal charges before trial or verdict; or charging individuals with lesser offences. [Emphasis added]


The amendment is an effort to coerce Minnesota county attorneys into offering offenders leniency at below-average rates. This, unfortunately, is statistical impossibility. As Reformer contributor Max Hailperin noted, “only in Lake Wobegon can all the individuals be on the same side of the average.”

Stearns County leads nation in home price declines

The average home value in Stearns County fell by almost 7% last year, according to a Washington Post analysis of mortgage industry data. It’s easily the steepest drop among the handful of U.S. counties that declined, and it’s also the only county in Minnesota where prices fell.

Local realtors say this might be because the expensive homes in the area got snatched up last year during a dip in interest rates. But if that’s the case it’s not clear why Stearns County would be the only place in the region to be affected so heavily. Any ideas?

Minneapolis population grows while St. Paul declines in 2023

The Census Bureau released 2023 estimates of city-level population change. Statewide the population grew by 0.4% from 2022 to 2023. Minneapolis’ population was up 0.7%, while St. Paul’s fell by 0.2%.

The biggest gainers were Blaine and Lakeville, up by 2.8% and 2.3% respectively, while the biggest declines were in Brooklyn Park and Plymouth. Duluth grew by 1.2%, St. Cloud by 1.5%, and Rochester by 0.4%.

Nationwide the fastest growing cities are in Texas, with several exurbs on the fringes of Dallas and Houston posting year-over-year rates of 25% or more.

Several entire states lost population, particularly high cost-of-living places like New York, California and Oregon. Also Louisiana, for some reason.

Federal reserve report shows high levels of income stagnation in Minnesota

Minnesotans born into the lowest rungs of the income ladder are unlikely to move upward, and those at the top have little chance of falling down, according to a Star Tribune report on new data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

It’s the same story in many Midwestern states where rates of in-migration and new business formation are relatively low. One thing we do have is big, well-established companies like Target and 3M, where jobs and income tend to be highly stable.

That lack of mobility is both a cause and a consequence of Minnesota’s stark economic divides on race, some of the nation’s worst. The income for a typical white Minnesotan is about $42,000 a year, while for a Black resident it’s less than $26,000.

Minnesota homeowners making out like bandits on their insurance policies

Another interesting national tidbit, this one from the New York Times: Minnesota is the only state in the union where insurers lost money on homeowners’ policies for every single one of the past five years. The finding complicates all the talk of cold states like Minnesota becoming “climate refuges” safe from the ravages of global warming.

The Times reports that steep losses in the Midwest are largely due to storm damage, particularly a series of hail storms that dropped massive chunks of hail on peoples’ roofs. Last year’s August hail storms in Minnesota, for instance, were one of 23 billion-dollar disasters in 2023. It’s a reminder that climate change isn’t just causing the weather to get warmer, but also more erratic and severe.

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