Proof and Institutions — Football and Brain Injury

June 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Malcolm is a great storyteller, and in an episode of Season Three of his podcast Revisionist History (here), he tells the story of Owen Thomas. Thomas was a star football player, in high school (he actually started playing competitively before that, when he was nine) and then at U Penn. In his senior year, he committed suicide. He had always been outgoing and happy  — his teammates selected him as team captain — and a good student, but he became depressed and confused, unable to remember things.

The episode is called “Burden of Proof.” How much proof do you need, Gladwell asks how much proof that multiple blows to the head that football players inevitably suffer causes irreversible brain damage? How much proof do you need that football caused Owen Thomas’s suicide?

Gladwell is particularly outraged at the statement by the Penn administration

While we will never know the cause of Owen Thomas’s depression and subsequent suicide, we are aware of and deeply concerned about the medical issues now being raised about head injuries and will continue to work with the Ivy League and the medical community in addressing these issue. Owen’s untimely death was a terrible tragedy, and we continue to grieve for his loss.

Listen to Gladwell read it and then tear into its hypocrisy.

Gladwell’s tone of moral outrage turns to disappointment, almost despair, as he acknowledges that there’s little hope for change any time soon. 


After the speech, as I walked to the reception, one of the big deans at Penn looked at me and shook his head. He said, “We’re not stopping football.”

Of course not. And it won’t stop. At least not until the thrid suicide or maybe the fourth suicide or the fifth, at which point the students and alumni at Penn will finally say, “That’s an awfully high price to pay for a game.”

As the title of the episode suggests, Gladwell thinks that it’s all about scientific proof and that the problem now is that the evidence is not yet overwhelmingly convincing. But when that proof does emerge —  the fourth or fifth suicide — Penn students and alumni will be persuaded and force Penn to jettison football.

Gladwell slights the more important reason that football continues: It is embedded in an large structure of institutions and interests —  a structure so large that we cannot imagine how it might be disassembled — and embedded in our consciousness. That’s the point I was trying to make when I posted this months ago on Superbowl Sunday. We cannot envision what life would be like without these institutions.  “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for football,” says one Penn student, a football player, in the Q&A following Gladwell’s talk. He could not imagine other pathways for people like him to get to the Ivy League that might arise to replace football.

I doubt that he and the others — the deans and alumni — will change their minds even as science accumulates more proof, just as no amount of proof will convince climate-skeptics. More likely the change will come slowly. It will seem sudden — a decision to cancel the football program — but it will come because more and more of the students who then become alumni will have grown up playing and watching soccer rather than football. When attendance at Penn soccer matches starts to rival that of football, the university administrators may decide to dump football. They’ll probably make some high-minded moral statement, and they’ll explain their long delay in reaching the decision by saying that till now the evidence had been ambiguous. But when that day comes the decision will not be about proof any more than it is now.

Resources and the Construction of Race

June 19, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Race is a social construction. That’s the truism you find in just about any sociology course. But if you want a great example, take eight minutes and watch this video. 

As you can see in the freeze frame below, the speaker, Corey Quinlan Taylor, is obviously Black. He’s certainly not White. Well, maybe not to you or me, but listen to his story.


Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t watched the video,  what I’m about to point out may spoil it.

            *                    *                    *                    *

First, Taylor’s story is yet another illustration that the same person may be Black in one context and White in another. The race depends on who is doing the classifying. Second, different societies have different categories of race, different bins to sort people into.  These two observations summarize the basic Soc 101 lesson.

The third lesson in Taylor’s micro-social world is that these categories do not change all by themselves. Sometimes the change starts with a small number people (in this case, one) making a conscious effort to instill new ways of thinking. But once set in motion, the change can spread through processes of social influence that are invisible both to those being influenced and those doing the influencing.

And sometimes, the process can be accelerated by those with greater resources — power and institutional position, social capital, cultural capital, or confectionary capital.

Pittsburgh’s Other Mister Rogers

June 15, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Rob Rogers is was the political cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The paper just fired him.

Here are some of his recent cartoons.

(Click for a larger view.)

The Post-Gazette is the only print daily left in Pittsburgh. The others that I grew up with, the Press and the Sun-Telegraph, were eroded by the demographic, economic, and technological changes. So it goes.

The paper is owned by Block Communications, which combined the Post-Gazette’s editorial pages with that of its other paper, the Toledo Blade. The Blade’s editorial director, Keith Burris, took over the Post-Gazette as well. Block and Burris are conservative. Burris had been killing Rogers cartoons on a regular basis, though they ran in syndication.

This does not seem like a complicated story. If you have enough money to buy up newspapers, you can hire editors to publish ideas that you like and to get rid of people who express ideas you don’t like.

Of course, Burris doesn’t think he was telling Rogers what to put in the cartoons. It was merely a matter of “collaboration.”             

“We never said he should do no more Trump cartoons or do pro-Trump cartoons,” said Mr. Burris. “For an in-house staff cartoonist, editing is part of it. Rob’s view was, ‘Take it or leave it.’”

[Burris] said he did not “suppress” Mr. Rogers’ cartoons but that Mr. Rogers was unwilling to “collaborate” with him about his work and ideas. [from the Post-Gazette’s story on the firing, here.]

Maybe Jeff Bezos should collaborate more with George Will.

The more media outlets a corporation can buy up, the more it can control what people see and hear. Block Communications is not Sinclair, with its 200 (and counting) radio stations. But it does control 100% of the daily press in Pittsburgh. For Rob Rogers and Pittsburghers, today is not a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Blaming the Baby — The Language of Medical Infallibility

June 11, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a recent article at Vox (here), Julia Belluz says, “Only 4 percent of women give birth on their estimated delivery date. . . Medicine is surprisingly bad at measuring the precise age of a fetus or how far along a woman is into her pregnancy.” The rest of the article explains why doctors suck at predicting the date of delivery.

But that’s not the way we talk about it. We don’t say, “The doctor was wrong.” We don’t say, “The doctor made a really bad prediction.” Instead we blame the woman. We say she was “late.”  She “missed her due date,” as though childbirth was something akin to a term paper. I guess if she provides a good excuse, we’ll give her an extension till Friday. 

Or we blame the baby. Look at the opening sentence of the article, “A pregnant friend of mine is due to give birth on Saturday, but as she told me this week, she really has no idea if the baby will come on time, or two weeks from now.” [emphasis added.]
The kid is still in the womb, and already we are taking him or her to task for not arriving “on time.”  

It’s not just obstetrics. Talk related to most other areas of medicine also rests on the same charitable assumption of doctor infallibility, especially when the ones doing the talking are doctors. The patient “failed to respond to treatment,” not “the treatment we used didn’t work.”

I caught on to this trick long ago, when I was reviewing the literature on compulsive gamblers. There wasn’t much to review, and most of those accounts were from psychiatrists. One of them said that treating compulsive gamblers was difficult because they “do not make good patients.” At first, that tallied with what I had found. Many of the compulsive gamblers I was listening to had tried psychotherapy without much success. It took me a while see that if you translate this idea out of the language of psychiatric infallibility, it sounds very different: “We psychiatrists have no idea how to cure these guys.”

This way of speaking — the one we frequently use — places the blame for failure on the patient, not the doctor. Those compulsive gamblers don’t make good patients. And babies — don’t get me started. Totally unreliable. They just have no sense of punctuality.