Unlisted False Negatives: Are 11% Americans Unlisted?

21 Aug

A recent study by Simon Jackman and Bradley Spahn claims that 11% of Americans are ‘unlisted.’ (The paper has since been picked up by liberal media outlets like the Think Progress.)

When I first came across the paper, I thought that the number was much too high for it to have any reasonable chance of being right. My suspicions were roused further by the fact that the paper provided no bounds on the number — no note about measurement error in matching people across imperfect lists. A galling omission when the finding hinges on the name matching procedure, details of which are left to another paper. What makes it to the paper is this incredibly vague line: “ANES collects …. bolstering our confidence in the matches of respondents to the lists.” I take that to mean that the matching procedure was done with the idea of reducing false positives. If so, the estimate is merely an upper bound on the percentage of Americans who could be unlisted. That isn’t a very useful number.

But reality is a bit worse. To my questions about false positive and negative rates, Bradley Spahn responded on Twitter, “I think all of the contentious cases were decided by me. What are my decision-theoretic properties? Hard to say.” That line covers one of the most essential details of the matching procedure, a detail they say the readers can find “in a companion paper.” The primary issue is subjectivity. But not taking adequate account of the relevance of ‘decision theoretic’ properties to the results in the paper grates.