Cook County, Queens County, & Raw Numbers as Obfuscation

Everyone has a different reaction to stress, and I am well aware that one of mine—getting pickier (and more prickly) about information accuracy—is not a normal one. Because I know and accept that my responses are in no way normal, and that I get colder as I get more stressed, I try to be understanding of more normal responses—which often irritate me beyond all measure. It’s a little like emotional appeals: they work for most of the population; they infuriate me. I know and accept that I am a weirdo, and try to step back when I run into an emotional appeal. So when I saw that Sun-Times article comparing Cook County to Queens (the borough/county/neighborhood in New York City), I saw red—and, after successfully avoiding it on Day One, ended up starting off Day Two with social media posts explaining why it is a bad comparison, and how raw numbers often aren’t the tell that folks think. I’m going to expand on that—and also on why I think it’s about the worst way to approach anyone about keeping Chicago Public Library closed, or at least limited to curbside/contactless pickup—here. Because, after all, I’m a librarian, and educating about information is kind of our thing.

The first bit of obfuscation in the article isn’t even related to numbers: it’s terminology. New York City didn’t expand in quite the way Chicago1 (or most other cities) expanded, and it doesn’t do neighborhoods—or enclaves—the way we do, either. (My phenomenal, and foundational, architecture history professor2 had loads to say about that.) The borough of Queens, New York City is also the county of Queens. The neighborhood of Queens, New York City is also the borough of Queens, New York City, which is also the county of Queens, New York. As I said, NYC, planned as it was by Dutch who’d never seen so much land in their lives,3 doesn’t follow what Midwesterners would consider normal patterns of land use or county spacing.4 Queens, or Queens County, or Queens the borough, has around 2.26 million residents. Cook County has around 5.15 million residents. (And yes, I did run those through WayBack machine, just for this post.) It is, as you can tell, just a slight difference in population.

A lot of us would like to believe that numbers can’t lie, or manipulate, or be manipulated. It’d be nice to think that there’s something out there, after all, that doesn’t befog the truth—but, alas, it isn’t numbers. Raw numbers are frequently used to muddy issues and truths. We see it all the time in discussions of murder in Big City USA versus Podunk USA. Big City USA has, we’ll say, three million residents and 200 murders a year. Podunk USA has 5,000 residents and 15 murders a year. Podunk USA will invariably tell the whole world that is is so much safer than the godless Big City USA, where 200 people were murdered last year—and yet, by any measure, Podunk is a hell of a lot more dangerous than Big City.5 (And I don’t just mean drunks driving tractors, or the increase in suicides that comes of having more ready access to guns.) But those raw numbers look, well, really different. And it’s the flawed data from raw numbers that politicians and talk show hosts will bandy about as they argue that more God and more guns are the only way to protect the sanctity of Podunk USA, which might otherwise turn into the heretical wasteland known as Big City USA.

There are considerably more than 99 problems with a direct, raw-numbers comparison between Queens and Cook County. Queens has fewer people than Cook County; it’s one small part of the hodgepodge mess that makes up New York City. (Yes, folks, I am a Chicagoan, in case you forgot: I have no love for NYC, no matter how much I love this novella. I do feel terrible for them right now, as we are fellow animals and I am also an urbanite.) We know that both Cuomo and de Blasio blew the handling of this pandemic straight to hell—and, while Cuomo’s right that “‘governors don’t do global pandemics’” (there’s a reason we have a federal government, or there used to be), JB Pritzker and Gavin Newsom and Gretchen Whitmer, among others, have all been doing global pandemics ever since they realized what was coming at them. When the feds aren’t really there, the governors step in. You gotta do what you gotta do, and Cuomo didn’t, until it was basically too late.

When we make arguments, or explain situations, or give out information, it’s important to ensure that we do so in an ethical. thoughtful manner. False information and propaganda were flying even before this pandemic; they are endemic now, and articles like the one I’ve been fact-checking make the situation that much worse. While the raw numbers might be accurate, the argument—and all the information as depicted—is so slanted as to be outright false. I’ll be honest: there are a couple of huge things that worry me, every time I see another person share that false article. The first is simple: this plays into the hands of every cable news host, every pundit, every politician, whose gleeful grabs at raw numbers are used to obfuscate the truth, and we sure don’t give to give them any more ammunition in that fight. Another concern is closer to home: plenty of Chicagoans have a basic understanding of our old enemy, New York City. (Not that familiar with Chicago? These tweets are a pretty good encapsulation of our attitude.) That information is so skewed as to be essentially false. Are folks going to realize that, and then decide that they’re being lied to about everything else, too?

Now, of course, we’ve seen that the current commissioner of the Chicago Public Library wants to open back up, no holds barred, no curbside anything. Just open as usual. A lot of folks I know have been sharing the Sun-Times article as an argument against re-opening. Opening CPL to normal service is wildly unethical, and probably outright murderous—and that article is just about the worst thing to use to make said argument. And, of course, if anyone reaches out, please remember that this one isn’t on Lori Lightfoot: it’s 100% on the commissioner, Andrea Telli. In fact, Lightfoot has said that libraries will NOT be opening June 1st, no matter what Telli might be telling her employees. (Note that this Book Riot article is also giving out false information about rates and raw numbers. Don’t use it either.)

Lightfoot’s a brilliant woman, and, I think, a cold and calculated thinker—a good thing to have at the helm, especially at a time like this. Now, I’m also a fairly cold person, or so I have been told, and so I can tell you that if you’re going to make arguments for anything before a cold and calculated person, you need to be really careful in your data. So, make your case with real data. Show rising infection rates. Describe daily life in a library, which is, surely, one of the hardest places to social distance. (People touch us all the time. Sometimes it’s cute, like when it’s a kid, and sometimes it’s creepy. And now it’s always dangerous. In case you were wondering.) Explain that our patrons include vulnerable groups—and so, for that matter, do library staffers, whose lives also have great value. (Vocational awe is outright murderous, at this point. And let’s face it: it’s always been shorthand for abusing the worker.) Make reference to data points from the Illinois Department of Health; take a gander at things like this Johns Hopkins data map. Use articles—but vet them carefully, making sure not to throw in garbage work like that article using raw numbers when rates (and nuanced discussions of timelines) would be more appropriate. And, you know, if you’re CPL staff, talk to your union. Maybe it’s time for a work action. Just make sure you, and not the bosses, are controlling that narrative, because that’s make or break.

Rates and ratios and percentages can be strange, hard things to discuss, especially when each number is a human life. There are no winners here, and my angry turn to information accuracy is one of the ways I cope with despair. But, at the same time, accuracy is more important than ever. It’s essential that we have at least some media outlets to trust, whether those outlets are Block Club Chicago and the Hyde Park Herald or the Sun-Times or the Tribune or our governor’s daily news briefings (may he stay well). We have to have something to rely on. We have to. Sharing demonstrably false comparisons and bad information becomes more immediately dangerous, more clearly deadly, in a time of pandemic and widespread illness and death. Right now, governors must tackle global pandemics, will they or no (and I am grateful for the Pritzkers and the Newsoms and the Whitmers of this world), and each one of us must vet our sources far more carefully than we might at any other time, looking for those numbers that can trick, looking for emotional language or heated rhetoric. Because we’re all kind of stuck, aren’t we? We’re in this together, no matter what.

1 If Chicago had done the style of land-grabbing that New York City engaged in, then Cook County would be joined, at a minimum, by DuPage and Will and Lake, probably more.

2 Tim Wittman didn’t just teach us architecture history: we learned a lot about the histories of urban planning, too.

3 From my notes for Origins of Modern Architecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Fall 2008, taught by Tim Wittman.

4 Note that the city of Naperville, Illinois is also in multiple counties, although they don’t correspond to neighborhoods as directly as NYC’s counties and neighborhoods. (Naperville is divided between Will and DuPage; none of it is in Cook, contrary to what a lot of students I used to work with thought.)

5 These are made up numbers, but they’re not made up scenarios. It’s also worth noting that my family is from Nekoosa, Wisconsin, and that for years the local “big city,” a town of just under 18,000 people, has had a pretty decent crime rate. My grandma always reminded us that the guy next door was criminal (we don’t like him, it’s a family thing), and also, watch out for those people up the Rapids. Sorry, Rapids! Grandma said so!