Saturday, May 05, 2012

What Do Demographers Want?

They want to play with numbers. When demographers were asked in a recent survey what they enjoy most about their profession, the largest share and 59 percent majority said they enjoy data analysis more than any other professional activity. "Indeed, the intrinsic joy of collecting and analyzing data is high on the scorecard of demographers," according to Hendrik P. van Dalen and Kene Henkens in their paper, "What Is on a Demographers' Mind? A Worldwide Survey," published in the journal Demographic Research.

The authors know what demographers want because they asked them. They surveyed 970 demographers worldwide in 2009 about a range of topics. Interestingly, the paper includes a comparison of the academic values of PhD students in demography with the values of their counterparts in economics, finding the two groups to be "complete antipodes." When asked what factors are most important for success in their field, 74 percent of demographers (but only 30 percent of economists) cite "being good at empirical research." Fully 64 percent of demographers (but only 9 percent of economists) say "knowing population or economic facts." The majority of PhD students in economics say knowing the facts is unimportant. To most PhD students in economics, the key to success is "being good at solving mathematical puzzles."

Economists may be good at solving puzzles, but not real world problems. Yet they still have the ear of the nation's policymakers. Perhaps because demographers so rarely lift their heads out of their sandbox of statistics, economists get all the attention. For demography to assume its proper role as a science, says demographer Dominique Tabutin (cited in the survey paper), it must strengthen its identity, its social and political utility, and its public visibility.

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