Loitering With Intent

January 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

At a blog called The Beautiful Sentence, I came across this quote from Frederick Wiseman

The only point of view I start off with is that if I hang around long enough, I'll find a movie

My first reaction was: if I sit in a Freddie Wiseman film long enough, eventually it will be over. [His latest, “Jackson Heights,” runs three hours ten minutes. “Belfast, Maine,” with a population 1/20 that of Jackson Heights, was over four hours long.]

But my next, and less cynical, thought was something that I heard William H. Whyte say at an ESS convention in the early 1980s.

I know that if I look at something nobody’s ever looked at before, and if I look long enough, I’m going to find something that nobody’s ever found before

It’s the ethnographer’s creed – hanging around, and then hanging around systematically, will lead to some insightful combination of observation and ideas. Whyte makes his ideas explicit. In Wiseman’s films, the ideas are hidden in the editing – the selection and juxtapositions.No voiceover narration, no interviews, no evident filmmaker presence at all. The filmmaker is seemingly invisible, indifferent, off somewhere paring his fingernails, though what he is really doing is paring and pasting thousands of feet of film.

The similarity in their work goes further.Wiseman’s documentaries are sociological. Whyte’s sociology is cinematic. Wiseman’s films are about social contexts, usually institutions. His first, “Titicut Follies,” explored (exposed really) a prison for the criminally insane. His next-to-most recent, documents London’s National Gallery. In between are flims like “High School,” “Zoo,” “Boxing Gym,” “La Comédie-Française ou L'amour joué,” and many more.

After his best-seller, The Organization Man (1956), Whyte turned to more visual kinds of research, not so much listening to what people say but watching what they do, especially in public places. He and his researchers were, like Wiseman, “hanging around,” but they were also filming and photographing and analyzing that evidence all with the goal of discovering what makes a space attractive. Attractive not in the sense of nice-looking, but literally: a space is attractive if it attracts people.    

Places to sit, sunlight, water (touchable, splashable), street characters (entertainers) – all these attract people. 

That leads to the greatest insight.

(A film of Whyte’s city observations is here . You can find a shorter 3-minute version here.)

B is for Beauty Bias

January 6, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The headlines make it pretty clear.
Attractive Students Get Higher Grades, Researchers Say

That’s from NewsweekSlate copied Scott Jaschik’s piece, “Graded on Looks,” at Inside Higher Ed and gave it the title, “Better-Looking Female Students Get Better Grades.”

But how much higher, how much better?

For female students, an increase of one standard deviation in attractiveness was associated with a 0.024 increase in grade (on a 4.0 scale).

The story is based on a paper by Rey Hernández-Julián and Christina Peters presented at the American Economic Association meetings. 

You can read the IHE article for the methodology. I assume it’s solid. But for me the problem is that I don’t know if the difference is a lot or if it’s a mere speck of dust – statistically significant dust, but a speck nevertheless. It’s like the 2007 Price-Wolfers research on fouls in the NBA. White refs were more likely to call fouls on Black players than on Whites. Andrew Gelman (here), who is to statistics what Steph Curry is to the 3-pointer, liked the paper, so I have reservations about my reservations. But the degree of bias it found came to this: if an all-Black NBA team played a very hypothetical all-White NBA team in a game refereed by Whites, the refs’ unconscious bias would result in one extra foul called against the all-Blacks. 

I have the same problem with this beauty-bias paper. Imagine a really good-looking girl, one whose beauty is 2½ standard deviations above the mean – the beauty equivalent of an IQ of 137. Her average-looking counterpart with similar performance in the course gets a 3.00 – a B. But the stunningly attractive girl winds up with a 3.06 – a B.

The more serious bias reported in the paper is the bias against unattractive girls.

The least attractive third of women, the average course grade was 0.067 grade points below those earned by others.

It’s still not enough to lower a grade from B to B-, but perhaps the bias is greater against girls who are in the lower end of that lower third. The report doesn’t say.

Both these papers, basketball and beauty, get at something dear to the liberal heart – bias based on physical characteristics that the person has little power to change. And like the Implicit Association Test, they reveal that the evil may lurk even in the hearts and minds of those who think they are without bias. But if one foul in a game or one-sixth of a + or - appended to your letter grade on your GPA is all we had to worry about, I’d feel pretty good about the amount of bias in our world.

[Personal aside: the research I’d like to see would reverse the variables. Does a girl’s academic performance in the course affect her beauty score? Ask the instructor on day one to rate each student on physical attractiveness. Then ask him to rate them again at the end of the term. My guess is that the good students will become better looking.]

Whither America’s Youth?

January 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Kids today are just so much better than kids of a generation or two ago.”    
When’s the last time you read an op-ed or magazine article that began like that. Never is my guess. Instead, you’re much more likely to find complaints about college kids who, when they’re not whining about being victimized by trivial and unintended slights, are demanding an end to free speech. Also popular are Millennials with their sense of entitlement and their refusal to work and jobs they find unfulfilling. And of course binge drinking, gangs, “Teen Mom,” sexting, the hook-up culture, grade inflation, and probably others I can’t think of at the moment.

But in fact most of the important trends among America’s youth are in the right direction.  Crime, for example, has decreased sharply in the last 20 years.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.  Data source here.)

Arrests for non-predatory offenses like drug violations and weapons offenses have followed a similar pattern.

Since 1995, arrests for liquor and weapons offenses are down by about two-thirds, drugs by about half.

Arrests, especially for non-predatory crimes, net only the more serious offenses. But self-report surveys, which include less serious matters, also show a decrease in the use of drugs and alcohol.

The percentage of high school seniors who have ever tried any drug is slightly lower than in the peak year, 1997 (49% vs. 54%). But kids today start their explorations at a later age. Heavy drinking has declined even more sharply – a decrease of 30% for seniors and nearly 60% for eight graders. [Source: NIDA]

As for those Teen Moms, the trend on TV (more) runs directly opposite to the trend in the real world (less).

The birth rate among younger teens is half of what it was twenty years ago. [Source: HHS ]

And it’s not because kids are having more abortions.

For teens of all ages, the rate of abortions a generation ago were three times or more greater than it is today.

Part of the reason for the lower birth rates might be that teens are not as sexually active.

The small declines in sexual activity are also accompanied by an increase in the use of contraceptives.

Finally, kids are staying in school. The overall dropout rate is half what it was in 1990. [Source]

So that’s it. Drugs, sex, and rock ’n roll.  Two out of three ain’t bad (crime too, so it's three out of four). As for rock ’n roll, the #1 song of 1995 was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Far be it from me to chart that against “Hello,” “Sorry,” or Hotline Bling.” But in the other more measurable categories, to quote a song title from an even earlier era, “It’s getting better all the time.”

Pleasure and Politics

January 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here is the bio line of an op-ed in today’s Times:
Jill Filipovic is a lawyer and a former senior political writer for Cosmopolitan.com who is writing a book about female pleasure and politics in America.
That’s a book I want to read. It’s a book I’d want to write if I knew enough about the subject. In a few posts (some of my favorites) in this blog, I have argued that American culture and politics regard pleasure with a certain amount of suspicion. Our Protestant ethic has remarkable staying power, and it underlies cultural products as diverse as Judd Apatow comedies (here) and conservative social science (here). Where European policies may be directed towards allowing people more pleasure, America has no national laws for guaranteed paid vacation days or greater job security, or family support generous enough so that parents (mothers especially) have some free time (here). The policy connection is clear. As the most recent Republican presidential nominee put it, “European-style benefits” would  “poison the very spirit of America.”  Or as one of my colleagues inadvertently suggested, he’d feel much better if we justified discussion – a dialogue about ideas – not as a source of pleasure as the French might but as a source of value, i.e., something with a practical payoff (here).

On the American political spectrum, my colleague and Judd Apatow are liberal. But generally in the US, the Protestant-ethic arguments come from the right.  The conservative fluster about pleasure gets more acute when the pleasure is sexual, and especially when the people having that pleasure are women. Male policies to control women’s sexuality arose with agrarian societies, as did other forms of inequality.  For 200,000 years or more, as hunter-gatherers, we humans were egalitarian and sexually unconstrained. Even social scientists who should know better sometimes ignore that long past and treat the more recent past – 15,000 years or so – as the total of human history. (See this post
 on virginity.)

The advent of industrial society seems to be slowly eroding those agrarian ideas. It makes sense then that those who want to conserve these agrarian-era inequalities are our political conservatives. I have long had a hunch that underneath even the most reasoned justifications for their policy preferences, for many of these conservatives, what’s really at work is a deep uneasiness about female sexual pleasure. I’d like to write a book making that argument about politics and pleasure, but as I said, my lack of knowledge and industriousness and maybe my inescapably male perspective and experiences, make me the wrong person to write that book. I hope Filipovic does it for me.