Cutting Edge, Aug. 24: New Ideas, Sharp Opinions

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Win some, lose some

Much has been made about Pittsburgh’s brain drain — the college-educated adults forced to leave town to find a job. Less has been made, though, of the in-migration of work-force-age college graduates — not newly minted college grads, but degree-holders 25 and up. Over at New Geography, urban affairs writer Aaron Renn looks at the numbers and finds the Pittsburgh region had a net gain of college-educated in-migrants from 2007 to 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Pittsburgh’s net gain of 25-and-up college-educated migrants was small — 179 people — but significant for a city that still struggles with its Rust Belt legacy. Biggest net winners: The Austin, Texas, area (a gain of 9,384 people with college degrees), followed by Dallas-Fort Worth and the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale region in Arizona, population boomtowns all three. The biggest loser? The New York City region (which includes parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania). New York gained an estimated 79,156 college grads over the 2007-2011 period, but lost more than 108,000, for a net loss of nearly 29,000.


Too young for playground

Much has also been made of Debra Harrell, a 46-year-old South Carolina woman who was arrested this summer for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a park — unattended, on three separate days — while the mother was working at McDonald’s. The mother spent two days in jail and temporarily lost custody of her daughter, but received much support from those who thought the police had overstepped their authority and who believe that “parents ought to enjoy broad latitude in bringing up their children” (Conor Friedersdorf, staff writer at The Atlantic).

Yet many side with the police on this issue, according to a telephone survey by the libertarian Reason Foundation: “68 percent of Americans believe the law should require children 9 years old and younger to be supervised while playing in public parks. Just 28 percent of Americans think 9-year-olds should be able to play unsupervised at the park, [and] 53 percent say 12-year-olds should be allowed to play at public parks unsupervised, while 43 percent say the law should require them to be supervised.”


But can we trust the poll?

Pew is one of the most trusted names in polls, but its pollsters — all pollsters — are working harder these days. “Recently, though, Pew decided to turn the spotlight on the reliability of its own research, [and] what it found was alarming: Fewer than one in 10 Americans contacted for a typical Pew survey bother to respond. That’s down from a response rate of 36 percent just 15 years ago,” says Slate tech writer Will Oremus.

Pew elaborates: “Political and media surveys are facing significant challenges as a consequence of societal and technological changes. It has become increasingly difficult to contact potential respondents and to persuade them to participate.” Pollsters are good at interpreting responses so that they are reflective of communitywide opinions, but there are some occasions where bias might be baked into the cake:

“Survey participants tend to be significantly more engaged in civic activity than those who do not participate, confirming what previous research has shown. People who volunteer [in their communities] are more likely to agree to take part in surveys than those who do not ... This has serious implications for a survey’s ability to accurately gauge behaviors related to volunteerism and civic activity.”


The sleeping gene

Having trouble sleeping? Or do you have the opposite problem — falling asleep unintentionally, perhaps while behind the wheel of a car (which, if polls can be believed, happens to 5 percent of Americans a month). It might all be in your genes, according to Allan Pack, a sleep expert at the University of Pennsylvania. He and another researcher looked at 27-year-old male twins, one of whom had a specific gene mutation:

“As it turns out, the twin who had the mutation slept, on average, two hours less per night than his brother,” The New Yorker explains. But the twin who got less sleep also required less of it, and performed better than his brother on mental acuity tests carried out during the sleep study. The “genetic variant that appeared to allow its carriers to derive the same benefit from six hours of sleep as the vast majority of us gets from eight.”

The results were published last month in the journal Sleep.

Bill Toland (

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