Is That Evidence in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Writing an Op-Ed?

February 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Nobody looks to USA Today op-eds for methodologically scrupulous research. Even so, James Alan Fox’s opinion piece this morning (here) was a bit clumsy. Fox was arguing against the idea that allowing guns on campus would reduce sexual assaults.

You have to admit, the gunlovers’ proposal is kind of cute. Conservatives are ostensibly paying attention to a liberal issue – the victimization of women – but their policy proposal is one they know liberals will hate. Next thing you know, the “guns everywhere” folks will be proposing concealed carry as a way to reduce economic inequality. After all, aren’t guns the great equalizer?

What makes the guns-on-campus debate so frustrating is that there’s not much relevant evidence. The trouble with Fox’s op-ed is that he pretends there is.

However compelling the deterrence argument, the evidence suggests otherwise. According to victimization figures routinely collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the sexual assault victimization rate for college women is considerably lower (by more than one-third) than that among their non-college counterparts of the same age range. Thus, prohibiting college women from carrying guns on campus does not put them at greater risk.

You can’t legitimately compare college women on college campuses with non-college women in all the variety of non-college settings. There are just too many other relevant variables. Even if more campuses allow concealed carry, comparisons with gun-free campuses will be plagued by all the methodological problems that leave the “more guns, less crime” studies open to debate.

The rest of Fox’s op-ed about what might happen is speculation, some of it reasonable and some of it not. “Would an aroused and inebriated brute then use his ‘just in case of emergency’ gun to intimidate some non-consenting woman into bed? Submit or you’re dead?” 

But also pure speculation are the arguments that an armed student body will be a polite and non-sexually-assaultive student body.  Well, as long as we’re speculating, here’s my guess, based on what we know from off-campus data: the difference between gun-heavy campuses and unarmed campuses will turn up more in the numbers of accidents and suicides than in the number of sex crimes committed or deterred, and all these numbers will be small.

Predicting the Oscars

February 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Of the films nominated for Best Picture, “American Sniper” is the clear winner at the box office. But will it will win Best Picture? or Director? or Actor?  Nobody thinks so, even its ardent supporters on the political right. How do they know?

It’s not like elections, where a hundred polls blossom to survey voters. Google Consumer Surveys did as the public (though not a random sample), and Sniper easily picked off the competition. David Leonhardt at the New York Times (here) provided this graph:

(Click on a graphic for a larger view.)

But the Oscars are decided not by the public but by the Academy. Nobody is polling them. Their views are not those of the public (or those on both the right and left put it, they are “out of touch”). So we are left with the equivalent of what readers of the racing from know as “past performances” - other races against the same competition. That means the critics’ ratings, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and SAG. In all these the Sniper crew were pretty much left out in the desert.

We also have the prediction markets, where the price of an investment reflects roughly the collective wisdom of the bettors. Several posts in this blog have contrasted this  “wisdom of crowds” with the views of “the smart money,” a relative handful of professional bettors. By watching the moves of the point spread, you can make a pretty good guess as to which side the crowd is on. If you had bet against their wisdom on NFL games this past season, you’d be well on the plus side.

With the Academy Awards, while the public may have an opinion, they do not place bets, except in office pools. My guess is that the action at the prediction markets comes mostly from a much smaller and better-informed number of participants.  It’s all smart money. And they do not think much of Sniper’s chances.  Predictwise has “Birdman” as having a 67% chance of winning, “American Sniper” only a 0.3% chance. The comparable figures at Betfair are 60% and 1.5% respectively.

The prices at Hollywood Stock Exchange tell a slightly different story.

How do the HSX bettors decide what to bid? I don’t know. I thought that history of the price changes might provide a clue. In some cases, the betting suggests a kind of cascade. People see the price going up and follow what they assume is smart money. The performances of J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Julianne Moore were no better – relative to the competition – yesterday than they were a month earlier. But in that month the price of Arquette relative to that of Felicity Jones has gone from about 2.5-1 to 9-1.*

Other changes are more puzzling. Here are the prices for “Birdman” and “American Sniper.”

On  Jan. 23, a bet that would pay $25 if  “American Sniper” won cost $8.91, while a similar bet on “Birdman”was only $1.51.  Now a “Birdman” bet costs six times as much as “American Sniper.” What happened on Jan. 23? I don’t know. It wasn’t the announcement of winners at BAFTA, Golden Globes, or SAG.  Maybe some more knowing reader can provide some enlightenment.

UPDATE: Feb. 22, 8:30 p.m. EST.  Since I  grabbed those HSX graphs yesterday, the bettors have been hitting “Birdman”and abandoning “Boyhood.”  As the market moved to the close, “Birdman” would have cost you another $10. “Boyhood” was cheaper by a similar amount. If this were football, I’d be going with “Boyhood.”

* Simmons, Arquette, and Moore now look like sure things. For my favorite anecdote about Oscar predictions, see this 2007 post  about the time I put a multiple-choice question on the midterm asking what would win Best Picture.

My Sweet Old et al.

February 15, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some fashions trickle down through the social class lattice.  It’s as though people look to those just above them to see what they’re wearing or what names they’re giving their kids. I see the same process with some words, though the crucial dimension is not wealth but apparent intelligence or education. You hear someone use the word fortuitous. It sounds so much more sophisticated than fortunate, and it seems to mean the same thing. So you swap out the more pedestrian term, and the next time you catch a lucky break, you say that it was fortuitous.

When something is perfect, why say that it’s merely ideal when you could say that it’s idyllic? It sounds similar, and you hear people use it in a context where ideal would also work, so it probably means the same thing. It just sounds so much more like a word the very well educated would use.  That’s why when I serve the salad, I ask my guests for their choice of dressage, which has the added advantage of sounding French.

And now we have Gwyneth Paltrow trying to jack up the tone of her advice just a notch. Here is a report from The Guardian.

(Click for a slightly larger view.)

It wasn’t the Mugwort the got me. It was the Latin. What happened to etc.Et (and) cetera (the rest of these things).  Et al. is for when the too-numerous-to-mention are people rather than things. They are alia – others. In the footnotes, et alia (“and other people”) gets abbreviated to et al. 

Needless to say, et al. is the province of the very educated –  the kind of people who talk about articles that have multiple authors. Etc., by contrast, seems so ordinary. Everyone uses it. So to give your Mugowrt advice a more scholarly aura, use et al.  Like idyllic, it’s gotta mean the same thing as the ordinary version.  Except it doesn’t. Steaming your vagina to “cleanse your uterus, et al.

Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?

The Very Reasonable Dutch

February 11, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

An early post on this blog (here) compared two ways of framing bad behavior – as an evil to be punished or as a problem to be solved. The behavior was trivial and hardly evil – men peeing carelessly rather than mindfully, with reeking men’s rooms the result. The Amsterdam solution exemplified the Dutch problem-solving approach. Americans, I imagined, would have relied on punishment.

Peter Moskos has taken his Cop in the Hood blog to Amsterdam for a short while, and he reports on a similarly rational approach to a real problem. Amsterdam has long be a Mecca for pharmaco-tourism, and two tourists had died recently from wrongly identified drugs (heroin sold as cocaine).

The city put up signs to warn tourists. It may seem like common sense, but what American city would do this?

See the full post here, complete with pictures of the signs and most impressively, a letter from the mayor – a letter whose reasonable tone is hard to imagine from an American mayor faced with a similar problem.