Detective Can

December 31, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The NYPD doesn’t record all the crimes that victims report.  That’s the shocking news on the front page of this morning’s Times (here).

A bit of history.  In 1950, the number of burglaries in New York jumped by 1400% 1300%.  The entire increase was attributable to one man, and he wasn’t a burglar.  He was the chief of police.  We’re not talking here about actual  burglaries, of course, just burglaries recorded by the police.

Prior to 1949, the policy on most reported burglaries was “canning.”  The victim would report the crime, the police would listen, and then “refer the case to Lieutenant Can.”  For reasons I cannot remember, the chief of police issued an order ending, or greatly reducing, that policy. As a result, the next year, New York had fifteen fourteen times as many burglaries.  (Something similar happened with robberies in Chicago in the 1980s thanks to pressure form the FBI, which gathers statistics for the Uniform Crime Reports.)

What if a similar directive were issued today?  The official numbers will rise, but everyone will know that this reflects a change in policy, not a change in safety. The trouble is that in the long run, there’s a sort of law of thermodynamics entropy eroding full reporting.  Police reap no rewards for reporting more crime.  Precincts or cities that report more crime may feel the wrath of the brass, the media, or the citizens.  Rewards flow to areas with less crime, and NYPD chiefs will compare precinct with precinct, and they will compare this month with last month.  Under these conditions, precinct commanders feel pressure to have lower crime numbers, and if the criminals and victims won’t cooperate in that effort, theres always Detective Can or his current equivalent.

Honesty and accuracy are nice in principle, but Compstat is what matters.

Technology – Old and New

December 31, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Ddulite is the opposite of a Luddite.  According to Mark Palko, who coined the term recently, a Ddulite is someone with a “preference for higher tech solutions even in cases where lower tech alternatives have greater and more appropriate functionality.”   

Andrew Gelman can see the Ddulite logic though he himself doesn’t even have a cellphone. 
 It can make sense to switch early (before the new technology actually performs better than the old) to get the benefits of being familiar with the new technology once it does take off. 
David Pogue, who writes the tech column for the Times, is probably a Ddulite.  He gives one of his year-end Pogie awards  to a projector, but not because it projects well – all projectors project – but for this beauty part:
The Pogie award-winning feature here, though, is a customizable start-up screen. You can add . . . an “if found, please call” message . . . . When the projector turns on, this start-up message is the first thing that appears.

Frankly, an “If found, please call” start-up message should be available on every cellphone, music player, tablet, laptop and remote control.

For years now, I have installed my own “If Found” technology on my cellphone, my MP3 player, my camera, and my laptop.  Admittedly, it’s old technology, but it works remarkably well.

I rarely send anything via snail mail.  But thanks to various charities (especially Amnesty International for some reason),  I have hundreds of these address labels.  I finally found a use for four of them.

I doubt that I’m in line for a Pogie

A Teachable Moment

December 29, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross posted at Sociological Images)

This ad illustrates some sociological idea, something I could use in class. I’m just not sure what it is.  (You may have already seen it. It’s been around on the Internet for a few months.)

Yes, it’s a beer commercial, not a documentary, not “reality.”  But the couples are real and unscripted – like the victims in a “Candid Camera” bit (or the subjects in some social psychology experiments).  Real and unscripted too is our reaction as viewers.  I don’t know about you, but after the ad was over, I realized that I had shared something of the couples’ anxiety at being different and hence excluded.  The bikers are neutral, maybe they are even silently hostile, so when they suddenly became accepting, my sense of relief was palpable.  I laughed out loud. 

So sociological point one is that we are social animals.  Excluded we feel fear, accepted and included we feel comfort.  Point two is that laughter is social.  Here (and in many other situations) it’s a kind of tension-meter.  There ad had no joke that I was laughing at.  It was just a release from tension.  No tension, no laughter.

The ad also illustrates “definition of the situation.”  The rigged set-up shatters the couples’ standard definition of going to the movies. They are anxious not just because they are different but because they nave no workable definition and therefore no clear sense of what to do. 

Finally, the ad raises the issue of stereotypes.  Stereotypes may actually have some general statistical accuracy.  The trouble is that the stereotype converts a statistical tendency to absolute certainty.  We react as though we expect all members of the stereotype to be that way all the time or most of the time.  Is it reasonable when you see 148 bikers to be fearful even to the point of leaving (I think some of the couples didn’t take the available seats)?  You don’t need to have read Hunter S. Thompson  to know there is some truth in the image of bikers as above the mean on violence.  But in a theater where you find them quietly awaiting the movie? 

What other sociological ideas does the ad suggest?

If You’re Going to Use Anecdotal Data, At Least Choose the Right Anecdotes

December 26, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

For instance isn’t proof.  So goes the old saying (Yiddish? Navaho? Confucian?).

Every semester in every course, I tell students that although anecdotal data can be useful for illustrating a general truth, a few selected cases don’t prove anything.  So the argumentum ex anecdotum (pardon my made-up Latin) bothers me, especially when it comes from a social scientist.

Here’s a letter in today’s Times.
Ian Ayres and Aaron S. Edlin write, “It would be bad for our democracy if 1 percenters started making 40 or 50 times as much as the median American.”

Are Bill and Melinda Gates a great threat to democracy? Jeff Bezos? Oprah Winfrey? Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg? I fail to see how those who have amassed great fortunes in America threaten American democracy.

They do not plot coups or finance fascist militias. They do, however, give lots of money to wonderful charitable and educational organizations.

I think much of the animus toward the enormous success of such people is rooted in jealousy. “It’s not right that some people should make so much more money than I do” is the spiteful feeling behind much of the opposition to the 1 percenters.

Russ Nieli
Princeton, N.J., Dec. 20, 2011
The writer is a lecturer in the politics department at Princeton.

Not only does Princeton Lecturer Nieli rely solely on anecdotal data, but at least two of the four people he mentions clearly illustrate the point he is denying -  that with great wealth comes the potential for great political power.  Does anyone think that Michael Bloomberg, whatever his skills in politics, would have become mayor if his income were that of a lecturer at Princeton?   If money really makes no difference in politics, if we all had equal power based only on our one vote per person, why do politicians spend so much time raising so much money?

Or take the recent legislation in California to apply the state sales tax to Internet sales.  It was pretty clear that one citizen of the state of Washington, Jeff Bezos, had vastly more influence on the legislation than did any citizen of California.  It’s also clear that Mr. Bezos was lobbying not for what was best for the people of the Golden State but what was best for Amazon.

I won’t bother to comment on Lecturer Nieli’s professional assessment of the psychological motivations (jealousy, spite) of those who oppose great inequality.
Perhaps Mr. Nieli lectures to his Princeton students that huge disparities in citizens’ power are true to the spirit of democracy.  But then again, I’ve never known Princeton to be careful in its choice of lecturers.

Jay Livingston was a lecturer in the psychology department at Princeton.  (True fact.)

A Christmas Repost

December 25, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Economists, says Dan Ariely (WSJ article here), have a problem with gift giving.  It does not fit into their models.  It is supremely irrational.  Some economists write as if they are actually offended by it, as though gift giving is literally unnatural, a violation of human nature.  But if there is a “natural” economy, it is not an economy based on rational self-interest.  It is the gift economy.  Gift economies precede even barter economies.  The rationalized market we take for granted is an economy-come-lately.

Matt Yglesias in Slate  has a take similar to Ariely’s. He also has some suggestions for gifts. 

Even I said something along the same lines two years ago, and I’m reposting it.  If stores and radio stations can recycle the same old songs (including “mine”) every Christmas, and television can give us the same Christmas specials, why not?


What was in those boxes we unwrapped and opened today? Gifts, most people would say.

But according to a Grinch-famous 1993 economics article by Joel Waldfogel, those boxes were also crammed with “deadweight loss” – the difference between what the giver paid for the book or bauble and what it was actually worth to the recipient.

Waldfogel surveyed Yale undergrads and concluded that “between a tenth and a third of the value of holiday gifts is destroyed by gift-giving.” Destroyed. That $40 sweater you gave to your cousin’s husband – you destroyed $10 of its value.

Here’s the key question Waldfogel put to his Yalies about gifts they’d received: “If you did not have them, how much would you be willing to pay to obtain them?”*

By this method, a really good gift would mean a high deadweight loss. For example, I would never pay more than $40 for a sweater for myself. No sweater to me is worth more than that. But suppose a good friend bought me a really, really nice $200 sweater. I love that sweater. I love it precisely because it’s an extravagance I never would have allowed myself. But the most I’d be willing to pay for it is $40. So according to Waldfogel, my friend destroyed $160 (80%) of the sweater’s value.

When I first heard about the Waldfogel study, I thought it was a bit of self-parody – like those jokes about engineers , where the engineer sees everything in terms of the concepts of his profession and thus misses the point. (Waldfogel, for example, refers to the “inefficiency” of gift-giving, as though the point of gift-giving were efficiency.) But Waldfogel wasn’t kidding. He just published a follow-up book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.

In fact, gift-giving has become increasingly rationalized and efficient. Children write letters to Santa specifying what they want; brides and grooms have bridal registries that do the same. Cash and gift cards are becoming more popular as gifts. There is no doubt that gift-giving is an economic exchange, and it would be silly to pretend that economic value has nothing to do with it (it’s the thought that counts). But it’s equally silly to think that it gifts are only economic and that they have no social meaning.


Taking Pictures or Making Pictures

December 24, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross-posted at Sociological Images.)

Ethnographers worry that their mere presence on the scene may be influencing what people do and thus compromising the truth of their studies.  They try to minimize that impact, and most of their reports give detailed descriptions of their methods so that readers can assess whether the data might be corrupted.

Photojournalists also claim to be showing us the truth – “pictures don’t lie” – but they compunctions about influencing the people in their photos.  Here for example is a photo taken in Israel by Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori.  (This is a screen grab of a video, hence the subtitles.) 

The defiant Palestinian youth, the flames of the roadblock – it’s all very dramatic.  But it is far from spontaneous.

Salvadori studied anthropology, and he is well aware that observers influence what they observe.  But editors want “good” photos, not good ethnography.  So observer influence is an asset, not a problem.
If you point a tiny camera at somebody, what is he going to do?  Most likely, he’s going to smile or do something.  Now imagine this enlarged with a group of photographers. That show up with helmets, gas masks, and at least two large cameras each, and they come there to take photos of what you do.  So you’re not going to sit there twiddling your thumbs.
No, the youths don’t twiddle their thumbs, not with the photogs on the scene.  Instead, they burn a flag.

There relationship is symbiotic.  The photogs want dramatic images, the insurgent youths want publicity.  Of course, even with the Palestinians youths and the Israeli soldiers, when the action gets real, nobody is thinking about how they’ll look in a photo.

(The full 8-minute video of Salvadori talking about photography in the combat zone was posted at PetaPixel back in October, though I didn't hear about it until recently.)

Factor Loading

December 20, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Does my newsdealer know something I don’t?

Newsstands arrange their magazines by category.  There are shelves for Women’s Fashion, Sports, Travel, etc.  One of the newsstands at Penn Station had this interesting grouping.

Investors Business Daily and the Daily Racing Form. Hmmm.

Was I Sleeping in Econ 101?

December 20, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Joe Nocera covers the business beat for the Times, and he’s now a regular on the op-ed page.  I’m sure he knows more about economics than I do.  But I was puzzled by the opening of today’s column about Fannie Ma and Freddie Mac
In their heyday, these strange hybrids — part corporation, part government agency — were the biggest bullies in Washington, quick to bludgeon critics who dared suggest that their dual missions of maximizing profits while making homeownership affordable for low- and moderate-income Americans were incompatible.
Apparently, Nocera agrees with the critics who thought those dual missions were incompatible.  Maybe I was doing my James Franco impersonation in Econ 101, but isn’t that the basic idea of free-market capitalism – that companies seeking to maximize their profits will make more stuff available at lower prices for buyers? 

If those missions are incompatible, then capitalism is a very wrong-headed idea.  But if Nocera is right, if powerful corporations pursuing profits do not always bring benefits to consumers, maybe we need to rethink anti-government, anti-regulation models and policies that treat Bank of America and Exxon-Mobil as though they were the local bodega.

(Nocera also says of the bullies, Fannie and Freddie, “they essentially wrote most of the legislation that affected them, which they larded with loopholes.”  Much the same could be said of the banking and energy behemoths, especially when Republicans are shaping the legislation.)

Do You Hear What I Hear? Maybe Not.

December 18, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

As I’ve said before (here), the question the researcher asks is not always the question people hear.   Thats especially true when the question is about probabilities.

Here, for example, is the ending of a fictional vignette from a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.
Is it more probable that Richard is
    a. a teacher
    b. a teacher and a rapist
Since the category “a teacher” necessarily includes teacher/rapists as well, the correct answer is “a.” But many people choose “b.”  The study used this “conjunction fallacy”* to probe for prejudices by switching out the rapist for various other categories.  Some subjects were asked about atheist/teachers, others about Muslim/teachers, and so on.  The finding:
A description of a criminally untrustworthy individual was seen as comparably representative of atheists and rapists but not representative of Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, feminists, or homosexuals.
Andrew Gelman, a usually mild-mannered reporter on things methodological, had a post on this with the subject line, “This one is so dumb it makes me want to barf.”
What’s really disturbing about the study is that many people thought it was “more probable” that the dude is a rapist than that he is a Christian! Talk about the base-rate fallacy.
Maybe it would settle Andrew’s stomach to remember that the question the researchers asked was almost certainly not the question people heard.   What the researchers pretend to be asking is this:
Of all thieves, which are there more of – teachers or rapist/teachers? 
After all, that is indeed the literal meaning.  But it’s pretty obvious that the question people are answering is something different:
Which group has a higher proportion of thieves among them – all teachers or the subset rapist/teachers?
The researchers say they weren’t at all interested in demonstrating the conjunction fallacy.  They were just using it to uncover the distrust people feel towards atheists.  What they found was that when it comes to dishonesty, people (specifically, 75 female and 30 male undergrads at the University of British Columbia) rank atheists at about the same level as rapists.

But why resort to such roundabout tricks?  Why not ask the question directly?**
Who is more likely to steal a wallet when nobody is looking?
    a.  an atheist
    b. a rapist
    c.  neither; they are equally larcenous
On a seven-point scale, rank each of the following on how likely they would be to steal a wallet when nobody is looking:
  •     an atheist: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7
  •     a Christian: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7
  •     a rapist: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7
  •     etc. 
Instead, they asked questions that they knew would confuse nearly anyone not fluent in the language of statistics and probability.  I wonder what would happen if in their “who do you distrust” study they had included a category for experimental social psychologists.***

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pretty much invented the conjunction fallacy thirty years ago with their “Linda problem,” and Kahneman discusses it in his recent book Thinking Fast and Slow.  To get the right answer, you have to ignore intuition and make your thinking very, very slow.  Even then, people with no background in statistics and logic may still get it wrong.

** The authors presentation of their results is also designed to frustrate the ordinary reader. Each condition (rapist/teacher, atheist/teacher, homosexual/teacher, etc.) had 26 (or in one case 27) subjects.  The payoff was the number of errors in each group.  But the authors don’t say what that number was.  They give the chi-square, the odds ratios, the p’s and the b’s.  But they don’t tell us how many of the 26 subjects thought that the wallet snatcher was more likely to be an atheist/teacher or a Christian/teacher than to be merely a teacher.

*** The JPSP is one of the most respected journals in the field, maybe the most respected, influential, and frequently cited, as I pointed out here.

Graphic Design the Fox News Way

December 13, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The best way to lie with statistics, says Andrew Gelman, is just lie.  This graph from Fox news is a visual version of that.  It’s published at via Media Matters.

The numbers are correct, but the Foxy graphmongers are making up the Y-axis as they go along.  The 8.6% of November is higher than than 8.8%, 8.9%, and maybe even the 9.0% of the first three months of the year.

Or maybe it’s an optical illusion.

[HT:  Max Livingston]

The Descendants

December 11, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Children in American movies are typically superior to adults. The kids are not only all right, they are wiser, less corrupt, and more competent. “Home Alone” is a classic example, where the plucky, resourceful kid triumphs over both the vindictiveness of the burglars and the mindlessness of his parents. (An earlier post on children in films is here.)

 “The Descendants,” the recent film with George Clooney (I saw it last night), starts more like a French film, where children are, well, children, and it’s the parents who must endure and learn to cope with the kids’ immaturity and thoughtlessness.

Clooney is Matt King, and the name is a deliberate irony. Kinglike, he must decide the fate of a huge tract of pristine Kauai land that his family has owned for many generations. The money from the sale will make him and his many cousins and their families rich. Which developer will he sell the land to?

But as a husband and father he is far being monarch of all he surveys. His wife has been in an accident and lies in a coma. His two daughters are unapologetically impudent and insufferable. As the film starts, Scottie, age ten, has sent a nasty, obscene text to a classmate. Alex, seventeen, now at an expensive private rehab/therapeutic school, first appears on screen drunk, having sneaked out of her room at night with another girl. Then there’s Sid, Alex’s friend, a slightly older boy, all stupidity and insensitivity, a chubby incarnation of Beavis and Butthead.

Then the film magically transforms the kids. Each has been introduced as obtuse, obscene, or obnoxious. But now Alex, it turns out, knows more than her father does, at least in one crucial area – that his wife, now on life support, had been cheating on him.

The kids change from being French, a burden for the grown-up, to becoming almost classically American, not superior but equal. They are now his partners. Teens and adult are a team trying to discover the identity and location of the seducer so that King can confront him. The teenagers are suddenly much less difficult and much more helpful, while King sometimes appears uncertain and even silly, peering over hedges to spy on his wife’s lover. He asks his daughter for advice. He even asks Sid what he should do.

(You can get some sense of this transformation in the trailers here and here, which also outline the rest of the story.) Still, the movie doesn’t go pure Hollywood. It does not present the world as a character contest where good faces evil, where the right action is clear and the only question is how the hero will come to make it. Instead, it shows a grown-up trying to understand and cope with problems and people he cannot really control.

And nobody blows up a helicopter.