Evidence at the Upshot

March 31, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Common sense” is not evidence. Neither is “what everyone knows” or, to use a source of data favored by our president, what “people say.”  That’s one of the first things students hear in the intro sociology course. Our discipline is empirical, we insist. It is evidence-based, and evidence is something that really happened. Often you have to actually count those things.

The Upshot is the “data-driven” site that the New York Times created to compete with FiveThirtyEight. Friday, an Upshot article about marriage, social class, and college had this lede,* a six-word graf.*
Princetonians like to marry one another.
The article, by Kevin Carey, showed that students from wealthier families are more likely to be married by their early thirties than are students from the bottom fifth of the income ladder. Carey argued that the cause was “assortative mating” – like marries like – and that the pattern holds even for graduates of the same elite school – Princeton, for example. Rich Princetonians marry other rich Princetonians, says Carey. Poor Princetonians remain unmarried. In their early thirties, only a third of them were married.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

According to Carey, the sorting that leads to mating takes place in the “eating clubs” – Princeton’s version of fraternities and sororities. Acceptance into this or that club depends in part on social class, so as Carey sees it, “Eating clubs are where many upper-income marriages begin.”

It’s logical and it makes sense. The only trouble is that Carey provides no evidence for Tiger intermarriage. That 56% of rich Princeton alums who were married by age 32-34 – we don’t know who they married. Another rich Princetonian? Maybe, maybe not. We know only that they were married, not to whom.

Oh, wait. I said Carey provided no evidence. I take that back. Here’s the second graf.

Although the university is coy about the exact number of Tiger-Tiger marriages, Princeton tour guides are often asked about matrimonial prospects, and sometimes include apocryphal statistics — 50 percent! Maybe 75! — in their patter. With an insular campus social scene, annual reunions and a network of alumni organizations in most major cities, opportunities to find a special someone wearing orange and black are many.

You don’t have to have taken a methods course to know that this is not good evidence, or even evidence at all. What people say, and even logical reasons that something should happen, are not evidence that it does happen. Carey all but admits that he has no real data on Princeton intermarriage, but that doesn’t stop him from writing about it as though it’s a solid fact.

Is it? Five years ago, a Princeton alumna, president of the class of ’77, published a letter in The Daily Princetonian giving her 21st-century counterparts this bit of advice: “Find a husband on campus before you graduate.”

The reaction was swift and predictable. Some even thought that the Princetonian had run the piece as an April Fool’s joke. Besides, people these days typically do not get married till their late twenties – at least five years after they graduate. A lot can happen to that eating-club romance in those five years.

Let me clear: the negative reaction to the letter and the median marriage age of the US population are not evidence that Princetonians are not marrying one another. But it’s just as good (or bad) as Carey’s evidence that they are.

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*Using journalism jargon when I’m writing about journalism is one of my favorite affectations.

Happy Birthday, Jay Livingston (1915 - 2001)

March 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s strange to go ego-surfing and the only person who turns up is some other guy. It’s only fair. He’s the one who wrote all those songs that were hits a half-century ago – “Mona Lisa,” “Tammy,” “The Mr. Ed” theme song, and of course of course, “Silver Bells.” Simple songs with simple chords.

That’s what he became known for. That’s what Hitchcock was looking for when he hired him to write a song for “The Man Who Knew Too Much. What Livingston (and his songwriting partner Ray Evans) came up with was “Que Sera Sera.” Said Hitchcock when he heard it, “Gentlemen, I told you I didn't know what kind of song I wanted, but that's the kind of song I want.”

His only tune in the jazz standards repertoire is “Never Let Me Go,” so different from those other songs – darker, in a minor key, and with complex and unexpected chord changes. It was also his own favorite. He tells the story that after he finished it, he took it to another song writer (I can’t remember who) to ask his opinion. The other composer sat down at the piano, played through it, and said, “You didn’t write this.”

He did write one other song that a few jazzers and singers do. “Maybe September.” Here is the version from the second Bill Evans - Tony Bennett album, 1977. There may be other recordings with a better vocal, but this one has Bill Evans.



“Concerted Cultivation” and the March For Our Lives

March 25, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A question that few people seem to be asking about Enough Is Enough and the March for Our Lives is: Why now? Or to paraphrase a question that some people soon will be asking: How is this school shooting different from all other school shootings?


There’s #MeToo and #Time’sUp of course. These may have inspired advocates of other liberal causes like gun control. But just three weeks earlier, a 15-year old in Benton, Kentucky brought a handgun to school and started shooting – 2 dead, 18 injured. The incident evoked only the usual responses, nothing more.

Here’s my hunch. When I first saw the kids in Parkland speaking out, organizing, demanding that adults do something, I immediately thought of a sociology book that had nothing to do with guns – Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau published in 2003.


These high-schoolers, I thought, are the children of “concerted cultivation.” That was the term Lareau used for the middle-class approach to raising kids. It’s not just that middle-class parents cultivate the child’s talents, providing them with private coaches and organized activities. There is less separation of child worlds and adult worlds. Parents pay attention to children and take them seriously, and the children learn how to deal with adults and with institutions run by adults.

One consequence is the notorious sense of “entitlement” that older people find so distressing in millennials. Here is how Lareau put it:

This kind of training developed in Alexander and other middle-class children a sense of entitlement. They felt they had a right to weigh in with an opinion, to make special requests, to pass judgment on others, and to offer advice to adults. They expected to receive attention and to be taken very seriously.

It is this sense of entitlement – the teenager’s sense that she is entitled to have some effect on the forces that affect her life – that made possible the initial protests by the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And once word of that protest spread, it was this same sense of entitlement, these same assumptions about their place in the world, that made so many other high school students join the movement.

At Fox and elsewhere, conservatives had to denigrate the students. That goes without saying. But their choice of lies and slurs is instructive. Conservatives just could not believe that kids could or should be so adept at mounting an effective movement or that they could or should speak intelligently about political issues. So the right-wingers insisted that the students were paid “crisis actors” or pawns of various forces of evil – adult anti-gun activists, the media, the deep state, etc. They also claimed that the students were “rude” and that they did not have standing to raise the issue of gun control.
“[the students] say that they shouldn’t be able to own guns even though they can go to war, but they think that they should be able to make laws. None of this makes any sense at all.

(For this and more really stupid Fox commentary the day before the march, see the excerpts in the transcript here.)

In a way, Fox and their friends are hauling out the old notion that children should know their place. But it’s not necessarily do-as-you’re-told authoritarianism. The issue isn’t the child’s independence. As Lareau says, concerted cultivation makes children far more dependent on parents than does the “natural growth” parenting more common in working-class families. Besides, foreign visitors since the early days of the republic have remarked on the independence of American children. What’s new, and what is so upsetting to exponents of older ideas, is the demand by teenagers to be involved in the decisions that shape their lives.

Sondheim – “The Glamorous Life”

March 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s Stephen Sondheim’s birthday – he’s a pianistic 88.

It’s hard to write about Sondheim without repeating what are by now cliches. But cliches (which Sondheim scrupulously avoids) usually contain some truth, and the one that sticks in my mind is this: Sondheim brings ambivalence to center stage. Sometimes it’s right there in the title of a song. In company, in answer to the question, “Are you ever sorry you got married?” a character sings “Sorry Grateful” (“You’re always sorry, you’re always grateful, you’re always wondering what might have been.”)

In other songs, the ambivalence is subtext, as in “The Glamorous Life” from “A Little Night Music.” Frederika, young teenage girl is singing about the glamorous life her actress mother compared with the lives of “ordinary mothers.” It’s no contest, and yet, under the protestations of how wonderful it is to have a glamorous mother, Frederika senses that she’s missing something.
Ordinary daughters may think life is better
With ordinary mothers near them when they choose. . .

No, ordinary mothers merely see their children all year,
Which is nothing, I hear…
But it does interfere
With the glamorous—
Here is the great Audra McDonald performing the song at a celebration for Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Yes, there’s her powerful voice, but she also perfectly reveals the ambivalence. (I don’t see how an actual teenage girl could sing this song – the version in the movie of “Night Music” is not good – especially if she has ever heard this performance by McDonald.)