These Truths, These Untruths, These Really Big Numbers

July 21, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

If a number just doesn’t sound right — it’s way too big or way too small — you’d better double-check. That’s the warning sociologist Joel Best has been giving us since 1990, if not before, when he looked at claims that the number of children abducted by strangers annually was 50,000. Way too many.

And now we have distinguished historian Jill Lepore, author of the recent best-selling history of the US These Truths. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, in her article “The Invention of the Police” (here) she says this:

I’m using a screenshot of The New Yorker’s online version only to show that as of this writing, more than a week after its initial publication, this passage remains unchanged. The text reads:

One study suggests that two-thirds of Americans between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four who were treated in emergency rooms suffered from injuries inflicted by police and security guards, about as many people as the number of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles.

This number, two-thirds, does not sound right. I have been in NYC emergency rooms — in the city’s high-crime years and in its low-crime years. Never did it look like two-thirds of the people there had been roughed up by the cops. The study Lepore cites (by Justin Feldman, here ) used data from 2001-2014. In that 14-year period,  683,000 young people (15-34) turned up in emergency rooms after being hit by the police or security guards, roughly 50,000 a year. That’s the numerator.

The denominator is the total number of emergency room visits by this age group. My estimate is about 30 million a year.* Obviously, 50,000 out of 30,000,000 is not two-thirds. It’s less than two-tenths of a percent.

What happened? Isn’t The New Yorker the publication that made “fact check” part of our everyday language?

Louise Perry (here) has an explanation of how Lepore and the fact checkers at The New Yorker misread the numbers and prose in Feldman’s article.

But it’s not clear where Lepore got the ‘two-thirds’ figure from. Possibly she misunderstood a line from from the paper itself, which includes the finding that 61.1% of people injured by police fell into the 15-34 age bracket. Or from the Harvard press release, which reports that: Sixty-four percent of the estimated 683,033 injuries logged between 2001-2014 among persons age 15-34 resulted from an officer hitting a civilian.

That’s the “how.” Perry also thinks she knows the “why”: “political bias.” Liberal, anti-police bias. Of course, it’s impossible to get evidence for this idea. The magazine and the writer have politically liberal views. Maybe the fact-checkers do as well. But it’s impossible to get evidence that their politics caused their misreading of the data.

So as long as we’re speculating without evidence, here’s my explanation (I’m not necessarily rejecting the politics explanation, just maybe adding to it): writing and reading about big numbers. It’s not easy to write up statistics in a way that is unmistakably clear. A reader not familiar with the territory can easily take a wrong turn, especially when that territory takes the shape of large numbers. If I told you that before the current pandemic, emergency rooms in the US saw about 3 million people a year, that might sound reasonable. I mean, three million seems like a really big number. But it’s only one- tenth of the actual number.

I know very little about dinosaurs. If you told me they went extinct 10 million years ago, I would think, Yeah, that’s a long time ago; it sounds about right. If you told me that they went extinct 200 million years ago, I’d have the same reaction. Sounds plausible. But a paleontologist would wonder how I could be taken in by such obvious untruths.

Yes, it’s possible that The New Yorker’s fact-checkers were so eager to stick it to the police that they let an “obvious” mistake slip by.  But it’s also possible that they just didn’t know how to parse these claims about the data, and because some of the numbers were large and others (ED visits) still larger and unknown, they just seemed reasonable.


* This a rough and quick estimate. The average 15-34 population over those years was in the range of 30-35 million. This site  shows rates of ED use by age group. Unfortunately, the age groups are Under 18 and 18-44. So I estimated on the low side.

Statues and Heroes — Looking Back From the Future

July 13, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Woodrow Wilson was a straight-up racist. No doubt about it. Yet in 1948, Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, which started up in 1930, added his name, making it the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. It has taken Princeton until now, seventy-two years later, to dump him. WTF? What changed, and why did it take so long?

What changed, of course, is that racism, especially the racism of institutions, has finally become a central issue in the national conversation. The civil rights movement in the 1960s brought big changes in the law, but it never had mass demonstrations as widespread and sustained as those of the last several weeks. Until now, racism, even though it was generally recognized as wrong, was not as salient an issue. Critics may have pointed out Wilson’s racism, but for Princeton, it just wasn’t that big a deal, certainly not big enough to warrant removing his name.

It’s hard to understand how Princeton could have let something so wrong slip by for so long. But Nicholas Kirstof’s column in yesterday’s New York Times (here) points the way towards understanding that failure even if we do not condone it.

As we pull down controversial statues and reassess historical figures, I’ve been wondering what our great-grandchildren will find bewilderingly immoral about our own times — and about us.

Which of today’s heroes will be discredited? Which statues toppled? What will later generations see as our own ethical blind spots?

I believe that one will be our cruelty to animals. Modern society relies on factory farming to produce protein that is inexpensive and abundant. But it causes suffering to animals on an incalculable scale.

It’s hard to imagine the moral climate of the year 2090. As Yogi said, prediction is very hard, especially about the future.* But suppose that Kristof is right. Suppose that seventy years from now the progressives (or whatever they are calling themselves) are tearing down the statues of Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg or demanding that the John Lewis School of Civil Rights change its name — all because these one-time heroes ate meat, often two or three times a day!

If we could speak to the protestors, would we tell them, “Wait. These were good people, the best. Back in 2020, we didn’t realize how cruel and how disastrous for the planet meat production was. We didn’t apply 2090 moral codes to animals.”

Their reply: “Yes, that’s precisely the point. Your morality was wrong, and we are not going honor those who lived by it. What’s painful to admit is that we waited till now to take these long overdue actions. After all, we’ve known all along that these people were straight-up meat eaters.”

* Comparison with the future, like prediction, is very hard. But it can be useful, especially when people use the much easier comparison with the past in a misleading way, for example to argue that poor people today are not really poor. See this post from 2015.

Ahmad and Miles

July 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

(I’m a few days late with this one. Ahmad turned 90 on July 2.)

“When people say Jamal influenced me a lot, they're right.” Miles Davis, Miles, the Biography

But mostly, people don’t say that, and they don’t realize how great the influence was. There’s the musical style of course. In the 1950s, when beboppers were playing as many notes as possible in a measure, Ahmad was allowing for much more space, an approach that also suited Miles.

There was also the choice of tunes. When I was in junior high school, I got a copy of the Miles’s album “Milestones.” One of the tracks is “Billy Boy” — no horns, just Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe. The liner notes said, ‘Miles has an ear for a pop tune ("Billy Boy").’ I agreed. What a neat idea to import this folk tune (not a “pop tune”) into jazz.

I was an ignorant kid. I didn’t know then (and most people still don’t) that the musician who brought it into the jazz world was not Miles. It was Ahmad Jamal. The 1958 Red Garland arrangement on “Milestones” is nearly identical to Ahmad’s 1952 recording — the intro and outro, the added bridge, the block chords with octaves in the right hand.

For the Red Garland version, listen here.

Miles also often gets credit for making “On Green Dolphin Street” part of the standard jazz repertoire thanks to his 1958 sextet recording. It’s a great recording, but Ahmad was the one who clued the jazz world in to the potential of this movie-soundtrack tune. The same sequence is true of “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”: first Ahmad, then Miles, then everyone.

Ahmad did have one huge hit, an album that became a best seller even outside of the jazz world: “Live at the Pershing” (1958). The track that got played over and over again on the radio back then (and often now) is  “Poinciana,”  another tune that Ahmad hauled out of the “unlikely for jazz” bin. 

Here he is at age eleven – Fritz Jones in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

Texas and Messes, Then and Now

July 5, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

How can you get Texans to do something that is inconvenient and brings them no direct benefit but will benefit the general society?

Today’s New York Times had this story on page one, above the fold.

How do you get Texans to wear masks and to stay out of bars? Pubic health orders apparently won’t work, even if they carry $250 fines. As a Lubbock County commissioner told the New York Times, “We’re some of the nicest people in the entire world. But as soon as you make demands and tell them they’re going to do something, you get a different response: You don’t get to tell me what to do.”

Nor will appeals to self-interest and personal safety. These people don’t feel ill at all, and are they sure they know how to take care of their own health.. The statistics don’t seem all that alarming. A large majority of these people will not get COVID, and most of those who do will not have severe symptoms. You might as well tell them that those guns they keep at home are more likely to kill or wound a family member (accident, suicide) than to ward off criminals. Besides, masks carry a political message that’s almost as clear as a MAGA hat. They are part of the culture war Trump is waging. Going maskless has become a way to taunt those on the other side. Besides, maskless is macho.  Masks are for the fearful.

In addition, the economic benefits of “opening up” are immediate and clear. The costs from a huge increase in COVID-19 lie in a far less visible future.

We’ve been here before, and by “here” I  mean the problem of individual inconvenience versus collective benefit.  By “here” I also mean Texas. The problem was not as serious as COVID-19 — highway beautification vs. littering. How could you get people who didn’t give a rat’s ass about highway beauty to stop tossing their empty beer cans out the pick-up truck window?

I wrote a blogpost about it in 2009, reposted in 2017. But it’s relevant once again.

*                    *                    *                    *                  

The guy you were trying to reach was Bubba, the classic red stater – fiercely individualistic, anti-government, macho. Bubba was also a slob, and probably proud of it. You couldn’t appeal to self-interest since it’s in Bubba’s self-interest to chuck his garbage out the window. Even hefty fines (and they are hefty) would work only if you could catch litterers often enough – unlikely on the Texas highways.

The best way in was Values. But how? “Don’t be a Litterbug, Keep Your Community Clean” would be too nice, too feminine or babyish, and, like “Pitch In” too collectivist. Instead, Roy Spence and Tim McClure at the Austin ad agency GSD&M had the Texas DOT go with chauvinism – Texas chauvinism. Spence and McClure were the ones who had distilled the target audience down to the Bubba stereotype, and the idea they played on to reach Bubba was not that littering was ugly or wrong or costly, but that it hurt Texas. And thus in 1985 was born one of the most famous and effective campaigns in the history of advertising.

With its double meaning of “mess,” it captured Bubba’s patriotism and pugnacity. The bumper stickers were soon everywhere. The TV ads featured famous proud Texans. One of the early ones (so early, I can’t find it on YouTube) featured Too-Tall Jones and Randy White, two of the toughest dudes on the Cowboys defense, picking up roadside trash.

JONES: You see the guy who threw this out the window, you tell him I got a message for him.

WHITE: (picks up a beer can): I got a message for him too.

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: What’s that?

WHITE: (Crushes the beer can with one fist). Well, I kinda need to see him to deliver it.

JONES: Don’t mess with Texas.
Litter in Texas has been reduced by 72%, the campaign is still going strong a quarter-century later, and McLure and Spence have a book about it. My source was Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers (no, jazzers, not those Heath brothers), Chip and Dan.

*                    *                    *                    *          
Now Texas needs something as brilliant as the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign. The ideas  I came up with spur of the moment —  “Don’t Infect Texas,” macho-looking Lone Star masks, “If New Jersey did it, so can Texas, only better” — don’t really hit the mark. Where are those advertising people when you really need them, because this time the stakes are much higher than highway aesthetics. A convincing campaign could save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.

Johnny Mandel, 1938-2020

July 1, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Johnny Mandel died on Monday.

His best-known song, the one heard most often by the most people, is “Suicide Is Painless” though most of those people will not know the title let alone the composer. It’s the theme song for M*A*S*H. The obits will list Mandel's other hits like “Emily” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.”

When I was a freshman, someone in my dorm had a record of the soundtrack from the 1958 film “I Want to Live.” I thought: Wow, can you really do this — have real jazz played by real jazz guys (Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Shelly Manne) in a Hollywood movie. It didn’t occur to me then to think about the composer/arranger. It was Johnny Mandel. Sixty-two years later, it still holds up. You can hear it here.

It’s hard to choose one recording. Shirley Horn has wonderful performances of several of his songs, and so does Bill Evans. There’s a Stan Getz recording of “Close Enough For Love” that I like because the piano player on it is Lou Levy, and once when I went to see him at a bar in New York, he let me copy the changes for that tune from his lead sheet. This was long before the Internet made that sort of thing so easy.

The beautiful “Moon Song” is not well-known, and when it’s performed, it’s usually done as a very slow ballad. But Fred Hersch, on his all-Mandel solo album “I Never Told You,” takes it at a livelier tempo, which makes easier to hear the melody and harmony.