We Are the World

December 31, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The ISIS threat to carry out terrorist attacks on New Year’s Eve celebrations shows what a unique holiday this is.

As Durkheim pointed out long ago, the underlying purpose of a ritual is group solidarity.  Rituals mark group boundaries. That’s why participation is so important. To take part in the ritual is to define yourself as a member of the group. To stay away is to declare that you are not a member. “Why do I have to go to Grandma’s for Christmas?” “Because you’re a member of this family.”
   
Because they define the group’s boundaries, rituals draw the line between Us and everyone else. “Us” might be a family, a team, a religion, a nation, or any other group. New Year’s Eve is unique in that the group it defines is the whole world. The year changes for everyone. On television we can see people in Sydney or Singapore, Mumbai or Madrid, celebrating the same festival. We are all taking part in the same ritual, therefore we are all part of the same group – the world. An attack on a New Year celebration, no matter where, is like an attack on a global sense of community.

That sense of community might be phony, or at least fragile and fleeting, but on this one occasion, we get a feeling of it as an ideal. We rarely articulate it specifically; instead, it is the unspoken assumption behind the celebration. As the announcers in the media say, “Tonight, people all over the world are celebrating . . .” This year, the Global Us becomes clearer because of those who have declared themselves to be on the other side of the boundary marked by this ritual.

Happy New Year!

Of Schlongs and Schmucks

December 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Cultural appropriation was in the news this week.  Students at a couple of universities had complained that their school, in a highhanded Eurocentric fashion,  had stolen and debased something – yoga classes, cafeteria food – from another culture. The news reports framed this mostly as yet another example of wrongheaded campus political correctness, something that sensible people regard amusement or alarm or both. In this view, the students and their ideas are silly but also pose a grave danger to freedom of speech if not universities and education as we know them. A good representative of this view is“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in a recent Atlantic (here), which notes the rise of terms like “microaggession” and “trigger warning” and a few instances of students protesting the invitations extended to certain speakers.

Cultural appropriation is different. With microaggressions and trigger warnings and other controversial issues, the goals of the politically correct align with widely held values – respect and equality for the vulnerable. It’s good to be against racism, sexism, cultural insensitivity, etc. Those are bad things. But cultural appropriation is a good thing. New sources and ideas, variations and combinations, keep the culture from becoming repetitive and stagnant. They make it vibrant and dynamic.

The trouble is that the appropriators, at least at the beginning, get it wrong.

“It was ridiculous,” student Diep Nguyen told The Oberlin Review (the “it,” in question was a banh mi sandwich with the wrong bun). “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” (Daily Beast)

It’s hard to be accepting of cultural variants, especially if you’re the one whose culture is being debased. And speaking of cultural debasement, here is Donald Trump misappropriating a Yiddish word.        

   

It’s a clear case of cultural appropriation, offensive and incorrect both politically and linguistically. Schlong is a noun, not a verb. It means penis. It does not mean to defeat badly, to rout, drub, shellac, trounce.  At least not yet. But in time, if enough people culturally appropriate it and use it to mean those things, then English will become richer by one additional meaning of one word, while the Yiddish purists out in the hall mutter and rend their garments. For the moment however, the consensus is that Trump misused the word.

Also that he’s a schmuck.

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Personal note: The use of schlong that I best recall is in this scene from “Last Tango in Paris.”



Here’s the transcript.


JEANNE
 What's this for?    
 PAUL
 That's your happiness and
my... my ha-penis
 JEANNE
 Peanuts?
 PAUL
 Schlong. Wienerwurst. Cazzo.
Bite. Prick! Joint!

I saw “Last Tango in Paris” in Paris – subtitles, no dubbing (v.o. comme on dit) – in a theater on the Champs-Élysées. When Brando says “schlong,” I laughed and was suddenly aware that nobody else in the theater had made a sound. The translation appeared on screen a split second later. General laughter. But for that moment, I felt a bit awkward in my solitary and unappropriated cultural knowledge.

UPDATE, Dec. 23:  Schlong in the cinema, one more time. Charlie Pierce reminds me that “My Favorite Year” has a great line built around this word. In fact, I blogged it two years ago in a post with the title “My Favorite Line” (here).

Risk and Worry

December 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

At age four, my son and his friend at pre-school thought it was great fun after pick-up to run down the sidewalk and hide just around the corner on the stoop at the front of a Japanese restaurant. The other boy’s mother would invariably get upset. “No, Alexander. Stop,” she would shout and then run after them.

“Janet,” I said once, “How many kidnappers are there in New York? And what are the chances that one of them is waiting at 11:47 today at the southeast corner of 69th and Broadway?”

I could tell that this mollified her only slightly. This was before Google. The World Wide Web was in its infancy. I could not easily look up the actual numbers. But I’d read Joel Best on Halloween sadism, and I knew that these numbers had to be small.  Of the tens of millions of kids in the US, maybe 100 abductions by strangers each year.

Alexander’s mother was not so unusual, then or now. A recent Pew survey (here) asked parents about their worries concerning their children.


Even among middle-class parents,* four out of nine worry about kidnapping. I would blame this inflated fear on the media, but the Internet and TV do not bring us daily stories about kidnappings. Besides, if the eleven o’clock news were the source of our perceptions of danger, we’d all be terrified that our homes will be consumed by fire.

But what about the fear that your child will be shot? I was surprised that so many high-income parents – more than one in five – worried about shootings. And among the poor, more parents are worried that their kids will be shot than that they will have problems with drugs or alcohol. The constant stream of stories in both the national and local news media along with the consequent debate over gun control – the frequent mass shootings, the statements from the president; I don’t know the evidence, but I would expect that these elevate parents’ perceptions  and fears.

Pew did not ask about serious or fatal injury from accidents, a much greater risk than either kidnapping or shooting, but I would guess that fewer parents would say that they worry about these. Parents are not actuaries, and in any case worrying is not the same as estimating risk. Parental worry probably involves some combination of probability, seriousness, strangeness, and control. It’s not very likely that your child will be shot, but if it does happen the consequences – physical and perhaps psychological – are far more serious than those of a skateboard accident. In addition, we don’t feel so  threatened by the familiar or by things that we feel we can control even if they are potentially very dangerous, like our cars.

Kidnapping combines the elements of seriousness, lack of control, and the unfamiliar,
at least in our minds. In the real world, abductions by family members far outnumber those by strangers. So if we’re like Alexander’s mom, we worry, even when we know that the probability is so small there’s nothing to worry about.

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* The Pew high-income group starts at $75,000, $20,000 above the national median family income.

Magic Words

December 17, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Voldemort. There, I said it.

I can’t remember why all the characters in Harry Potter are afraid to say “Voldemort” and instead refer allusively to “He Who Must Not Be Named.” But I had the impression that if only someone did speak the name, then Voldemort would be finished. Like the Wicked Witch when Dorothy empties the bucket of water on her, he would dissolve into a harmless puddle. Of course, the person who speaks the name would have to be very powerful and brave. But if only we had such a hero would would dare say the magic word, evil would vanish from our world, and we would no longer live in fear.

Such is the power of language, at least in stories for nine-year olds. Maybe on Fox TV as well, and maybe for Republicans generally.  Here is a tweet last month from their most preferred candidate for president:

Other GOP candidates and right-wing Webistes offer a similar analysis. Only if our leader speaks the magic word will the problem be solved.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran this piece by Rudy the Brave.


Giuliani begins:

In 1983 when I was the U.S. attorney in New York, I used the word “Mafia” in describing some people we arrested or indicted. The Italian American Civil Rights League—which was founded by Joe Colombo, one of the heads of New York’s notorious five families—and some other similar groups complained that I was defaming all Italians by using that term.  In fact, I had violated a Justice Department rule prohibiting U.S. attorneys from employing the term Mafia.

See, I told you he was brave – defying the IACR and DoJ by using the forbidden word. He explains why this was both justified and essential in slaying the monster.

This hesitancy to identify the enemy accurately and honestly—“Mafia” was how members described themselves and kept its identity Italian or Italian-American—created the impression that the government was incapable of combating them because it was unable even to describe the enemy correctly.*

He goes on to make the same complaint about Obama that Cruz, Trump, et al. are making. Obama will not say the magic words “Islamic terrorism.”

Obama uses the acronym ISIL or ISIS. The IS stands for Islamic State, a phrase that Obama has no trouble uttering. In this, he is doing what Giuliani says he did with “Mafia” – using the term that they use to describe themselves. 
       
But with “Mafia,” Giuliani has picked the wrong analogy. What if instead of using the term “Mafia,” Giuliani had said “Italian gangsters” or “Italian criminals”? Why did he not use those terms? After all, as he says, the names in the Mafia membership book all ended in a vowel. Non-Italians may have worked with the Mafia, but none were “made men.”

Giuliani didn’t say “Italian gangsters” for the same reason that Obama doesn’t say “Islamic terrorists.” The terms imply something about all Italians or all Muslims. It is no more accurate to suggest that there is something inherently terroristic in Islam than it is to suggest that something about Italians makes them especially prone to become gangsters.Saying “Mafia” draws the distinction between Italian Americans on the one had and Italian-American gangsters on the other. That’s an important distinction.

Aside from the problem of inaccuracy, there’s the practical aspect. Had Giuliani spoken about “Italian mobsters” he might have pissed off lots of Italians, and not just the mobsters, who in any case were not his biggest fans. He would have alienated Italians whose votes and campaign contributions he would someday need. In a similar way, Obama does not want to alienate the billion or more Muslims whose help or at least neutrality the West needs in the fight against ISIS.  And for Obama and the US, the stakes are much higher than they were for Rudy and his political ambitions.

Yes, words are important, and a phrase that others find insulting can be especially effective in turning them into enemies. But ISIS is already a sworn enemy, and no phrases that we could come up with will change their willingness or ability to continue their war and terrorism.

Conversely, choosing the wrong words could make things even harder for us, and not just over there.  After all, when it comes to letting just about anybody get very deadly weapons, U.S.A., we’re number one. The shootings in San Bernardino showed us just how easy it is for an alienated, radicalized person to get a couple of assault rifles and then do what assault rifles are designed to do – kill a lot of people.

Shouting “Islamic terrorism” may be personally satisfying, even cathartic. It may play very well to the home crowd during its two minutes of hate. But for the president of the United States – the leader of the free world and the leader in the war against ISIS – maybe it’s not such a great idea.

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*Giuliani does not explain why using the magic word “Mafia” made his prosecution successful or why the same evidence without the magic word would not have persuaded juries to convict. He says only that his predecessors’ avoidance of the word “created the impression” that they couldn’t get convictions.

Trump – Not Here to Make Friends

December 14, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve revised my theory of Trump. My old version was based on the idea that what motivated Donald Trump was the profound fear that somewhere in the world there was someone who had not heard of him. (This assessment was not original with me. I can’t remember who I’m stealing it from – Gail Collins probably) The corollary is that Trump does not really want to be president. Being president is hard work, and of the sort that Trump has little talent or taste for. But running for president could bring untold publicity, most of it free.

That explains the outrageous statements – about Obama, about McCain, about Mexicans, about Megyn Kelly, et al. This kind of talk guarantees the attention of the media and therefore the public. Everybody’s going to be talking about Trump. But ultimately these calumnies also assure that he will not win the presidency and probably not even the GOP nomination. For the Donald it’s win-win. He gets tons of publicity, and he doesn’t have to worry about being president. It’s also much easier than running to win since you don’t have to worry about how every word you say might affect your ratings with the electorate.

Now comes Ezra Klein with a variant explanation. Ezra takes the candidacy at face value and assumes that Trump is in it to win it. But the model for the Trump campaign is not traditional politics, where he has no experience. Nor is it the real estate business. Instead, it is the area of Trump’s greatest success – reality television.*

Donald Trump is what would happen if you took the skills of a reality television star and put them in a presidential campaign.

In reality TV, the goal is to become famous. You become famous by getting air time, and one of the ways to get air time is to be outrageous even if that means being offensive. As the famous trope goes, “I’m not here to make friends.” (A video montage of this phrase from dozens of reality TV shows is here.)

In politics – unfortunately for Ezra’s take on Trump, though fortunately for the country – winning and getting publicity are not the same thing. In reality TV, you can win even if you lose. Everyone who watched Season One of The Apprentice remembers Omorosa, the villain of the show, even though she was fired in Week 9. Does anyone remember those who outlasted her including the winner, someone named Bill Rancic? By TV criteria, Omorsa was the winner. She was the one invited back for two other editions of the show. (Of the original cast of Season One, she is the only contestant to have a Wikipedia entry. She is also the first one shown in the clip linked to in the previous paragraph.)


One other difference between reality TV and politics (and real business as well): in politics, having friends and being able to make friends are great assets.

----------------------------
* You can hear this discussion on the latest episode of The Weeds (here starting at about 49:00), a podcast from Vox.

Short Con, Long Gain

December 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Erving Goffman wasn’t much of a football fan, but he would have loved this play that the Patriots pulled off against the Eagles yesterday. It’s all about self-presentation.

(If YouTube prevents the embedded video from running, click here and watch it there.)

It’s a con basically, and Goffman loved con games. The con man:
  • makes a presentation of self that . . .
  • projects a definition of the situation. . . .
  • so that others will act on that definition. . . .
  • and behave towards him the way he wants them to.

Why do the Eagles leave Brady uncovered?  A guy I know who saw the play said, “At that point, Brady looks just like a running back in the slot position (in fact, that’s what he is), so there should have been a linebacker covering him.”

But  “what he is” is what people define him to be, and at first, he projects the definition of himself as the quarterback. He goes down the line yelling at the linemen as though he is calling an audible or shouting instructions. That’s what quarterbacks do, and there is no information to suggest that he is not the quarterback. Then he stops for at most a second. The announcer says that he looked confused. The ball is snapped, and even then Brady just stands there. He is no longer projecting a definition of himself as quarterback, but he is not acting like a slot receiver either. The Eagle defenders cover the usual suspects, a list which does not include Tom Brady the famous quarterback.

Finally, he runs his pass route without an Eagle anywhere near.*

Goffman liked con artists because they provide a clear example of what we all do. The main difference is that the con man is doing deliberately and consciously what the rest of us do unawares. In fact, most of us would deny that we are trying to manipulate others’ impressions of us. It’s only when some mistake happens and we fear that others might get the wrong impression that we can see how much work goes into making sure that they get the right impression.
                       
[A similarly Goffmanesque football deception, though at a less professional level (middle school), was the subject of this blogpost  of five years ago.]

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*This sneaky stratagem, unlike others in the Belichick-Brady book, has the virtue of not violating any NFL rules. With this reception Brady was making a good gain but not smashing any records, not even those on his cell phone.       

Whose Outrage?

December 6, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Moral outrage is the stock in trade of tabloids. They love stories of the indefensible, the Inexcusable – stories that offer us the gift of  easy moral clarity.

In New York this week both tabloids, the Post and the Daily News, have focused on the same outrage – the San Bernardino shootings. But the two tabloids have been duking it out over how to frame the event. Do we focus on guns or on Muslims? What is the real outrage?

On the day of the shootings, it was religion that was taking it on the chin, and from both sides.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The Post headline reflected the idea, very popular on the right, that Islam is inherently a religion of terror and that all Muslims are potential terrorists. Or as Keith Ablow on Fox put it, “If somebody named Syed leaves your party, you know what, call the cops.”* In an early edition, the Post headline was “Murder Mission,” but the editors changed it to “Muslim Killers,” shining the beacon of blame on an entire faith.

While the Post might have been out to offend Muslims, the Daily News was jabbing if not at God Himself, at everyone who believes in God, or at least those who believe in a kind and beneficent God. More specifically, the news was sticking it to big-name Republican lawmakers (Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, et al.) who refuse to make laws restricting guns and whose only response to each mass shooting is “thoughts and prayers.”

(In case the News print is too small to read, it says in part, “Cowards who could truly end gun scourge hide behind meaningless platitudes.”)

Two days later, both tabloids had the story about the woman in the San Bernardino shootings and her allegiance to ISIS.



The Post front page was all about Tashfeen Malik and ISIS. But the News gave pride of place to a local story about the serious weaponry that a Long Island man had stockpiled in his house. (I guess it’s just coincidence that both well-armed homes – in San Bernardino and in Syosset – are “lairs.”) If you read the Post, the danger to Americans is ISIS and by implication all of Islam. If you read the News, it’s guns and ammo.

A good front-page tabloid story paints the moral boundary line in bright unmistakable colors. We are one side, the evildoers on the other. What kind of story can do that? Sometimes the crime is so horrible that no defense is possible. The perpetrator is not even human – a “monster.” Sometimes, the crime may not be so horrible, but the perpetrator’s wealth, power, or privilege eliminates any defense. No mitigating factors for celebrities.

Then there is the derivative or secondary outrage – the failure of authorities to condemn or adequately punish the original outrage. That’s the gist of the News front page both on Thursday (“meaningless platitudes”) and Saturday (“and the cops say he ISN’T A THREAT.”)

Today’s front pages repeat this theme of the outrage of insufficient outrage.


The Post tells us that the ISIS is praising the killers – clearly outrageous. But the message in smaller print is that the president’s reluctance to use the language of moral condemnation is also a moral outrage. (“But Obama thinks it’s only ‘possible’ they were Islamic terrorists.”) For the News, the outrage is the refusal of the NRA to condemn weapons whose main virtue is that they can kill a lot of people quickly.

Today we have a divided New York – the Jets v. the Giants, the News v. the Post. The football game will have a clear winner. The tabloids are playing on a much larger field: the national debate over which is the greater threat in our midst – guns or Muslims.

-----------------------
 * On his podcast “The Gist,” Mike Pesca does an excelllent takedown of Ablow. Go here  and start at about the 24:00 mark.

Smile Darn Ya Smile

December 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Things change. Fashions come and go, some rapidly, some slowly. Some have economic forces behind them. With music and clothing, whole industries push us to regard last year’s songs or shoes as oldies to be replaced with something more current. But nobody is promoting Olivia and Noah as baby names or telling us not to give our daughter a name like Barbara. Nobody encouraged us to use the word “issue” where we once said “problem” (“Houston we have an issue”?) or “needs to” instead of “should.” (See this post from 2012.)  Most of us didn’t even notice those changes in language.

What about fashions in faces? Here are four high school yearbook photos, two from the 1960s, two from the current decade. Guess which two are from each decade.


Not too hard, right? The hair is the giveaway, not the faces. B and C are from the 60s, A and D from the 2010s. 

A team of researchers – Shiry Ginosar and four others at Berkeley and Brown – has been looking at yearbooks to see how looks have changed over the years.* They’ve got big data – well, pretty big: 37,000 yearbook photos across the decades since 1905. (To make historical comparisons, they used only full-face pictures – they edited out the three-quarter views that became popular in later years.) They then created clusters of similar photos in each decade, and from those clusters created a sort of visual average. Of necessity, these composites – blended photos – look a bit fuzzy. Here are the clusters for the 60s and the 2010s. The left-most picture is the composite.


(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Even in the composite, the hairstyle is notably different. If I’d included the girls with glasses, the historical differences would be obvious. None of the 21st-century girls are wearing glasses. They prefer contacts. Or lousy vision.

But there’s another difference that you might not have looked for. Try another quiz. Here are four sets of pictures – girl-boy pairs from the 1960s, 1970s, 2000s, and 2010s. Put them in chronological order:



The answer is D, A, C, B. The order shown above is 1970s, 2010s, 2000s, 1960s.

The key is the smile.

You probably noticed that the girls smile more than do the boys. That’s true for all decades. But the researchers also found a nearly continuous increase in the amount of smiling by both sexes.  Here are the composites for each decade.


And here are actual photos that are most representative of each period.


The researchers quantified the degree of smiling. They created a measure based on the degree of curvature of the lips.


The graph makes things even clearer than do the photos. Smiles have been trending for over a century.

Ginosar et al. have only one explanation for the upward trend – technology. In the early 20th century, they say, photo portraiture was still under the influence of 19th century technology. Those old cameras required an exposure of several seconds, sometimes as long as half a minute. When you have to be motionless for that long, a neutral expression is easiest to maintain. Besides, photo portraiture began as a cheaper alternative to oil painting, and the convention in portrait painting, where subjects had to maintain a pose for a long time, was that people should look serious.

The trouble with this explanation is that the Kodak camera was introduced in 1888. By 1900, everyone was taking snapshots rather than posing solemnly for photographs taken by a man hiding under a black cloth with a large wooden box resting on a tripod. The snapshot was to 1903 what the selfie was to 2013. But perhaps old poses hang on even though they are no longer technologically necessary, and fashions in yearbook poses diffuse gradually.

But why the decline in smiles from 1950 to 1965? These were, by some accounts, the most contented years of the century, free of conflict and turmoil, even boring. And why did the trend turn upward again in the early 1960s as things were starting to go downhill? (“It all began in about 1963. That was the year, to overdramatize a bit, that a decade began to fall apart.” James Q. Wilson, Thinking About Crime).

I have no idea. You lovers of zeitgeist explanations, feel free to speculate. I’ll just add that the song and Disney cartoon that provide the title of this post (video here) were created in 1931 at the depths of the Depression, and the smiley face was invented in 1963.

Have a nice day.


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*The article, with many more yearbook photos, is here.)

Billy Strayhorn - b. Nov. 29, 1915

November 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How does a small, gay, Black kid, raised and living in Homewood, a Black section of Pittsburgh, come to write, at age 19 in 1934
The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingué traces. . .*
and over the chord sequence D♭ / B7 / D♭?

Billy Strayhorn was born 100 years ago today. “Lush Life” is deservedly his most frequently recorded song. Lady Gaga and Linda Ronstadt have done it. Sinatra never got more than a few bars into it on a few takes at a 1958 recording session. On the tape you can hear someone suggest that they “put it aside for a minute.” “Put it aside for about a year,” says Sinatra. Even years later, when his accompanist suggest that Sinatra sing it saloon style, “just you and me and a piano,” Frank shook his head.

The lyrics and music have a sophistication that rivals even the best of Tin Pan Alley – Gershwin, Kern, Porter, et al. I sometimes play piano – not well, but enough to fool some people for a short while – and I would never try playing “Lush Life” with anyone else in the room.

Strayhorn’s best known tune is “Take the A Train,” often attributed to Duke Ellington – it was, after all, his theme song – and Duke may have had a hand in writing it.  The two worked together so closely that with many of the songs, it’s impossible to know who wrote what. “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine,” Duke wrote in Music is My Mistress.

Even among jazzers, Strayhorn’s presence faded along with the big band era. Then in the late 60s he was gradually rediscovered, and people started playing some of his lesser known tunes. Here is Joe Henderson playing “Isfahan” from his 1992 Strayhorn tribute album “Lush Life.” The bassist is Christian McBride.



Composers and arrangers remain largely unknown; it’s the musicians on stage that get the recognition. Band leaders even used to claim composer credit on tunes written by musicians in their band. (Cootie Williams is listed as one of the composers of “Round Midnight,” which, as everyone knows, was written by Thelonius Monk.) Duke was more generous. “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows.”

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* The lyric may be too sophisticated. Some singers have turned “distingué traces” into “distant gay traces.”

Striking Discharges

November 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The police do not shoot people. Not any more. Apparently, the word shoot has been deleted from the cop-speak dictionary.

A recently released video shows a Chicago cop doing what most people would describe as shooting a kid. Sixteen times. That’s not the way the Chicago Police Department puts it.

A “preliminary statement” from the police News Affairs division, sent to the media early the next morning, said that after he had refused orders to drop the knife, McDonald “continued to approach the officers” and that as a result “the officer discharged his weapon, striking the offender.” (Chicago Tribune)

In Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter is protesting what they think is the shooting of Jamar Clark by a police officer. How wrong they are. The police did not shoot Clark. Instead, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension

At some point during an altercation that ensued between the officers and the individual, an officer discharged his weapon, striking the individual. (MPR News)

The police don’t shoot people. They discharge their weapons striking individuals, usually suspects or offenders. A Google search for “officer discharge weapon striking” returns 3.6 million hits.

Worse, the press often doesn’t even bother to translate but instead prints the insipid bureaucratic language of the police department verbatim.

Fearing for their safety and the safety of the public, they fired their guns, striking the suspect.

(Other sources on these stories do put the press-release prose in quotes. Also, in California, officers who discharge their weapons also usually “fear for their safety and the safety of the public.” I would guess that the phrase is part of some statute about police discharging their weapons)

Here’s another example from the Wilkes Barre area:

(Click on the image for a larger and possibly clearer view.)

The writer nailed the lede: a police officer shot a suspect. But whoever wrote the headline had majored in Technical Language and Obfuscation rather than Journalism.

Does the language make a difference? I don’t know. Suppose the headlines two weeks ago had said, “In Paris, some people discharged their weapons striking individuals.”

The Elsewhere Effect

November 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Americans have a low opinion of Congress. Less than 10% of the voters think that Congress is doing a good job. But their own Representative . . . not so bad. A third of us think that our own rep deserves re-election (Rasmussen). The percentage, while higher than our views of representatives in general, is still much lower than it used to be. Until recently, a clear majority of people approved of their own representative while disapproving of Congress in general. This “mine isn’t so bad” view applies to crime as well. People feel safer in their own neighborhoods than elsewhere, even when those other neighborhoods have less crime.

Race relations too are bad . . . elsewhere. In the last year, the percent of Americans saying that race relations in the country are “bad” doubled (roughly from 30% to 60%). That’s understandable given the media coverage of Ferguson and other conflicts centered on race. But people take a far more sanguine view of things in their own community.  Eighty percent rate local race relations as “good,” and that number has remained unchanged throughout this century. (See this post  from last summer.)

Not surprising then that the problem with marriage in the US turns out to be about other people’s marriages. A recent survey asked people about the direction of their own marriage and marriage in the US generally.



Only a handful of people (5%) see marriage generally as getting stronger. More than eight times that say that their own marriages have strengthened. The results for “weaker” marriage are just the reverse. Only 6% say that their own marriage has weakened, but 43% see marriage in the US as losing ground. 

Why the “elsewhere effect”? One suspect is the media bias towards trouble. Good news is no news.  News editors don’t give us many stories about good race relations, or about the 25-year drop in crime, or about the decrease in divorce.  Instead, we get crime and conflict and a variety of  other problems. Add to this the perpetual political campaign with opposition candidates tirelessly telling us what’s wrong.  Given this balance of information, we can easily picture the larger society as a world in decline, a perilous world so different from the one we walk through every day.

At first glance, people seeing their own relationships as good, others’ relationships as more strained seems like the opposite of the pluralistic ignorance on college campuses. There, students often believe that things are better elsewhere, or at least better for other students. They think that most other students are having more sex, partying more heartily, and generally having a better time than they are themselves. But whether we see others as having more fun or more problems, the cause of the discrepancy is the same – the information we have. We know our own lives first hand. We know about those generalized others mostly from the stories we hear. And the people – whether news editors or students on campus – select the stories that are interesting, not those that are typical.

Kanye, We Hardly Knew Ye

November 24, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

On the new-books shelf of the library yesterday, I saw this.



The Cultural Impact of Kanye West already? You mean Kanye has already levitated from mere pop to high art? With new discussion questions?

I remembered what W. H. Auden said in an interview long ago – maybe in the late 60s or early 70s – when he was asked what he thought of Bob Dylan as a poet. Auden confessed his ignorance and explained, “One has so much to read.”

Alec Baldwin, interviewing New Yorker editor David Remnick (the audio is here), tries to get Remnick to diss the New York Times for its culture coverage. Says Baldwin “There’s things that they cover in pop culture, I go: They put that on the front page of the Arts section of the New York Times??”

Remnick disagrees. “I think that’s OK.” and adds, “It’s important for somebody my age [he’s 57] to remember that Kanye West is for his audience . . . what Bob Dylan was for his audience thirty years ago.” Remnick also identifies himself as “somebody who still goes to see The Bobster and others, and it still means everything to me.”

Like Auden, Remnick puts Dylan (and Kanye) in the bin labeled Pop. The difference is that Remnick has time for them while Auden attends to more serious things. But as time passes, and as academics move into the neighborhood, what was once pop can become serious. It’s like that New Yorker cartoon of a course at the New School devoted to “I Love Lucy.” (I can’t find the actual cartoon. As I recall, it shows a professor in front of a large whiteboard filled with diagrams – arrows linking circles labeled “Ethel” or “Ricky” or “Chocolate factory.”)

Dylan and Lucy, starting from very different cultural places, both wind up in what Jenn Lena calls the “Traditionalist genre.”

At the start of the Traditionalist genre, a scholarly literature emerges that strives to preserve, codify, and organize the field. . . .Scholars and lay historians are often preoccupied with the quest for the true or authentic, complete history. [from Banding Together ]

I thought it might be a bit early for Kanye to have entered this ultimate and elevated genre. But there was that book. True to academic protocol, nearly all the essay titles in it have a colon (only two of fourteen have had their colons removed), titles like “When Apollo and Dionysus Clash: A Nietzschean Perspective on the Work of Kanye West,” or “Confidently (Non)cognizant of Neoliberalism: Kanye West and the Interruption of Taylor Swift.” Ah yes, the Interruption. What book about Kanye could omit an analysis of that crucial historical moment, an analysis very much in keeping with “quest for the authentic history.”

It’s as though the scholars are saying to Kanye, “Imma let you finish your career, but first I’m gonna write this essay about your oeuvre to date. ”

One thing puzzles me: those “new discussion questions” promised on the cover. I wonder, do they elevate Kanye even more, inviting still more academic analyses? Or do they lower the Kanye Studies program from highbrow to middlebrow, like those discussion questions now tacked on at the end of novels aimed at the book-club market? Maybe Kanye’s next album will come with the study questions already embedded.

Men Are From Mars, Survey Respondents Are From Neptune

November 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Survey researchers have long been aware that people don’t always answer honestly. In face-to-face interviews especially, people may mask their true opinion with the socially desirable response. Anonymous questionnaires have the same problem, though perhaps to a lesser degree. But self-administered surveys, especially the online variety, have the additional problem of people who either don’t take it seriously or treat it with outright contempt. Worse, as Shane Frederick (Yale, management) discovered, the proportion of “the random and the perverse” varies from item to item.

On open-ended questions, when someone answers “asdf” or “your mama,” as they did on an online survey Frederick conducted, it’s pretty clear that they are making what my professor in my methods class called “the ‘fuck you’ response.”

But what about multiple-choice items.
Is 8+4 less than 3? YES / NO
11% Yes.
Maybe 11% of Americans online really can’t do the math.  Or maybe all 11% were blowing off the survey. But then what about this item?

Were you born on the planet Neptune? YES / NO
17% Yes
     
Now the ranks of the perverse have grown by at least six percentage points, probably more. Non-responders, the IRB, and now the random and the perverse – I tell ya, survey researchers don’t get no respect.

----------------
Big hat tip to Andrew Gelman. I took everything in this post from his blog (here), where commenters try seriously to deal with the problem created by these kinds of responses.

Wheelhouse Rock

November 21, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

FiveThirtyEight has an nGram tool that shows the frequency of words on Reddit. The first word I tried it out on was wheelhouse.

(Click on the image for a larger view. My apologies for the faint font, 
but that’s the way FiveThirtyEight does it.)

I chose wheelhouse because it seems that this word has broken out. Literally, a wheelhouse is the enclosed place on a ship that houses the wheel.


Sometime in the 1980s, baseball players started using it to mean the area where a batter swung with maximum power.


But on a recent podcast someone said of a screenwriter that a particular kind of story was “in his wheelhouse.” I assume that Hollywood is a bellwether for trendy words and that wheelhouse has crossed over from sports to other worlds.

The FiveThirtyEight tool doesn’t tell you what the context is. Maybe these references were all in sports Reddits. Or maybe they weren’t. So I went to Lexis-Nexis, which showed the same rapid increase in recent years.


The early wheelhouses were nearly all in articles about baseball.

When Mitchell . . .asked him why he swung at a 3-0 pitch, the trainer replied, "It was right in my wheelhouse, Mitch." Contra Costa Times (California) June 8, 2000

But by 2015, about 75% of those wheelhouses were in other sections of the newspaper  – the popular arts, politics, and “Living.”

“Art and artists of any persuasion and any medium, whether it's performing artists, visual artists or poets, have always been in my wheelhouse.” (NY Times Sept. 8, 2015)

“This is a plan that is simple; that's a major reduction. I think people are going to be very happy,” Trump said in a speech at Trump Tower in New York City. “This is my wheelhouse.” (USA Today September 29, 2015)

Cocktails Are in My Wheelhouse
 By The Scenestress
(Sarasota Herald Tribune, February 5, 2015)

How do fashions spread, especially fashions in things where money is irrelevant – things like words? My impression is that sports are a popular source. People in politics, the popular arts, and business have injected game plan, curveball, track record*, playing hardball, etc., into their speech, presumably because the identification with the world of sports makes a person seem more down-to-earth and genuine, and perhaps tougher and more competitive.

Maybe someone with better computer/statistical chops than mine will scrape the databases and trace the paths of diffusion.

And with apologies to The King:

Captain threw a party at the downtown pier.
The band was playin’ loud so everyone could hear.
Now folks who don’t know anything about a ship
Are talkin’ ’bout the wheelhouse ’cause it sounds so hip,
Let’s rock
Everybody let’s rock.
Everybody up and down the dock
Was dancin’ to the wheelhouse rock.


------------------------
* Track record as used by everyone today (except horseplayers) really just means record. This is far different from its meaning in sport of kings, where it originated. For more details on the misuse of track record, see this post.

Fairway and the Perils of Growth

November 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“That’s private equity for you,” said Steve Jenkins. He was standing outside the uptown Fairway at 125th St. about to go to breakfast at a diner across the street. He no longer works at Fairway.


Steve was one of the early forces shaping Fairway back when it was just one store at 74th and Broadway. He hired on as their cheese guy. “What do you want that for?” he growled at me one day long ago when he saw me with a large wedge of inexpensive brie. “That’s the most boring cheese in the store.” He was often abrasive, rarely tactful. I tried to explain that it was for a party and most of the people wouldn’t care. He would have none of it. He cared. He cared deeply – about cheese, about food generally.

He helped Fairway expand from one store to two, then four. He still selected the cheeses. He wrote the irreverent text for their signs, including the huge electric marquee that drivers on the West Side Highway read. And then in 2007 Fairway got bought out by a private equity firm. The three original founders cashed out handsomely. Steve and others, including one of the original three partners, stayed on. Much of their their share of the deal was in Fairway stock, but with restrictions that prevented them from selling.

Fairway kept expanding – stores in more places around New York – and they aimed more at the median shopper. Gradually, the store lost its edge, its quirkiness. With great size comes great McDonaldization – predictability, calculability. “Like no other market,” says every Fairway sign and every Fairway plastic bag. But it became like lots of other markets, with “specials” and coupons. Coupons! Fairway never had coupons. Or specials.

The people who decided to introduce coupons and specials were probably MBAs who knew about business and management and maybe even research on the retail food business. They knew about costs and profits. Knowing about food was for the people below them, people whose decisions the could override.

“I gotta get permission from corporate if I want to use my cell phone,” said Peter Romano, the wonderful produce manager at 74th St. – another guy who’d been there almost from the start. He knew produce like Steve knew cheese. Peter too left Fairway a few months ago.
                       
Maybe this is what happens when a relatively small business gets taken over by ambitious suits. Things are rationalized, bureaucratized. And bureaucracy carries an implicit message of basic mistrust. “If we trusted you, we wouldn’t make you get approval. We wouldn’t make you fill out these papers about what you’re doing; we’d just let you do it. These procedures are our way of telling you that we don’t trust you to do what you say you’re doing.”
.
The need for predictability, efficiency, and calculability leave little room for improvisation. The food business becomes less about food, more about business. It stops being fun. The trade-off should be that you get more money. But there too, Fairway’s new management disappointed. They expanded rapidly, putting new stores in questionable locations. In the first months after the private equity firm took Fairway public in 2013, the stock price was as high as $26 a share. Yesterday, it closed at $1.04. The shares that Steve Jenkins and others received as their part of the private equity buyout are practically worthless.


Steve Jenkins will be all right. He’s well known in food circles. He’s been on television with Rachel Ray, Jacques Pepin. Still, there he was yesterday morning outside the store whose cheeses and olive oils had been his dominion. “I’m sixty-five years old, and I’m looking for a job.”

Magic Objects

November 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Anthropologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries noted that primitive people believe in a peculiar power, mana, inherent in powerful persons and ghosts. In their “magical thinking,” primitives also believe that this power be transmitted from the person to inanimate objects they have touched or possessed. An object imbued with the mana of the king or chief becomes very valuable indeed. Someone else can acquire that power by acquiring the object, though he himself must be person of some importance lest the mana of the object overwhelm him.

This belief about magical objects whose powers can be acquired is of course characteristic of primitive peoples. It is so alien to us in the modern world we find it hard to really grasp, understand, or sympathize with this mentality.


The Crime Drop – a Personal View

November 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

With all the talk about a “Ferguson Effect” and crime on the rise (both disputed by the Obama administration), I had a personal reminder of how far we’ve come since the bad old days when crime rates were . I should start by saying that I live between Needle Park and “Death Wish.”

(Click on an image for a slightly larger view.)

 In the 1971 film “The Panic in Needle Park,” Al Pacino is a junkie hanging out with other junkies in what is and was officially known as Verdi Square. 


In the 1974 film “Death Wish,” Charles Bronson lives in an apartment building at Riverside Dr. and 75th St. It is in that apartment that vicious criminals break in, beat his wife savagely (she soon dies) and rape his daughter (she becomes catatonic.). Bronson becomes a vigilante, scoring his first kill when a mugger attacks him in Riverside Park.*


In the 1980s, my car was broken into twice (I park on the street). The bad guys smashed the window and checked the glove compartment for anything valuable. Car radios were often taken but mine never was. Cars were stolen. One evening I saw a man standing next to a spot where only a couple hours earlier he had parked his car. Now it was gone. Word was to avoid Riverside Drive. Cars parked there were more likely targets.

That was then.  The crime I was a victim of – breaking into a car and stealing stuff – is classified as “theft” or “larceny” for purposes of crime statistics.



(The data is for New York State – I couldn’t quickly find NYC data –  but since the City accounts for more than half the crime, this graph reflects the actual trend. If anything, the real drop in NYC was greater than what the state data shows.)

This week I was reminded of those days when I would see shattered glass on the street – evidence of car break-ins. Last weekend, my son borrowed the car, and when he returned, he found a parking spot right across from Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” apartment building (see the map above). I didn’t need the car, so it wasn’t till Friday that I went to move it and discovered that he had left the passenger-side window half open.


Fearing the worst, I quickly checked the glove compartment. Everything was there – maps, cell phone charger. Ditto the trunk – beach chairs, bike rack. I sniffed the car for signs that a homeless person might have camped there, but no. In five days, the only intruders were a few leaves that had blown in.

Things change, and sometimes for the better.

As for Needle Park, this is what it looks like today.


---------------------------
* The park scene is shot 15 blocks uptown from his apartment, mostly because of the photogenic stone stairway down to the park.

What’s Up Doc? (or What’s Uptalk?)

November 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

What’s up with Matthew Yglesias and uptalk?

On The Weeds, the new podcast from Vox, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Sarah Kliff talk politics and policy for an hour or more. The talk is often informed by research and data even to the point of wonkitude (anyone for Consumer Price Index vs. Chained Consumer Price Index?). But what struck me on listening for the first time was not the content. It was Yglesias’s uptalk or upspeak. Here he is discussing gerrymandering and the drawing of Congressional district lines.


(transcript)
Because what the Democratic incumbents had been doing?
they’d been doubling down on safety for themselves?
and the independent commission forced the Democratic incumbents?
to take on districts that were a little bit riskier?
I mean still D-leaning?
because it’s California?
But so they picked seats up.
When I read the transcript by itself – no audio – I hear it without the rising inflections mid-sentence.

Here’s another example just few moments a later.



(transcript)

I mean, I think the Canadian case is interesting because one subtle psychological thing they do?
is the districts have to have names?
rather than numbers?
and so that that encourages, I think, subtly but really an idea of community coherence?
because you get districts with names like Edmonton Centre.

I think that what they do there
with that naming?
with that sort of principle? right
that the district should represent a place,
and the place should be something you can give a name to?
because it should have some kind of tangible relationship?
I think that lines up very well with the way most people think it should be done?
Y’know I think it’s like authentic to the values?
of the American people?
I also think it’s a little bit dumb?
because it allows for a ton of disproportionality?
And actually Canadian elections?
have awful disproportionality?
in part because they have multiple parties?
running in these seats?
Where did Yglesias acquire this inflection? Possibly it’s generational, and younger ears hear nothing noteworthy in Yglesias’s speech. Yglesias is under 40. I am well over 40. But the other two podcasters, Klein and Kliff, are younger than Yglesias but are not uptalkers. Or is it regional? I had thought that uptalk had started in California in the 1970s. But Yglesias grew up in New York city in the 1980s and has remained on the East Coast.

What is the meaning of these rising intonations? They don’t suggest uncertainty, nor do they seem to be asking “are you with me on this?” Some linguists see them as ways of saying, “I’m not finished with this sentence, so don’t interrupt me.” That’s one reason uptalk is more prevalent among women – they want to forestall interruptions from men. 

I’m not complaining (uptalk – not that there’s anything wrong with that). The time for handwringing over uptalk as the end of civilization as we know it has come and gone. I’m just curious as to why Ezra Klein, the Californian, speaks with barely a trace of uptalk, and Matthew Yglesias, the New Yorker, saturates his speech with it.

Which Side Are You On?

October 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

When it comes to rule-breakers and rule enforcers, which side you are on seems to depend on the rule-breaker and the rule.

National Review had a predictable response to the video of a school officer throwing a seated girl to the floor. Most of the response when the video went viral was revulsion. But not at National Review. David French (here) said it clearly:

I keep coming to the same conclusion: This is what happens when a person resists a lawful order from a police officer to move.
The arrested student at Spring Valley High School should have left her seat when her teacher demanded that she leave. She should have left when the administrator made the same demand. She should have left when Fields made his first, polite requests. She had no right to stay. She had no right to end classroom instruction with her defiance. Fields was right to move her, and he did so without hurting her. The fact that the incident didn’t look good on camera doesn’t make his actions wrong.

This has been the general response on the right to nearly all the recently publicized incidents of the police use of force. If law enforcement tells you to do something, and then you don’t do it, it’s OK for the officer to use force, and if you get hurt or killed, it’s your fault for not complying, even if you haven’t committed an offense.

That’s the general response. There are exceptions, notably Cliven Bundy. In case you’d forgotten, Bundy is the Nevada cattle rancher who was basically stealing – using federal lands for grazing his cattle and refusing to pay the fees.  He’d been stiffing the United States this way for many years. When the Federales finally arrested him and rounded up his cattle, a group of his well armed supporters challenged the feds. Rather than do what law enforcers in other publicized accounts do when challenged by someone with a gun – shoot to kill –  the Federal rangers negotiated.

Bundy was clearly breaking the law. Legally, as even his supporters acknowledged, he didn’t have a leg to stand on. So the view from the right must have been that he should do what law enforcement said. But no. 

Here is National Review’s Kevin Williamson:

This is best understood not as a legal proceeding but as an act of civil disobedience. . . As a legal question Mr. Bundy is legless. But that is largely beside the point.

What happened to “This is what happens when a person resists a lawful order”? The law is now “beside the point.” To Williamson, Bundy is a “dissident,” one in the tradition of Ghandi, Thoreau, and fugitive slaves.

Not all dissidents are content to submit to what we, in the Age of Obama, still insist on quaintly calling “the rule of law.”
Every fugitive slave, and every one of the sainted men and women who harbored and enabled them, was a law-breaker, and who can blame them if none was content to submit to what passed for justice among the slavers?

(The equation with fugitive slaves became something of an embarrassment later when Bundy opined that those slaves were better off as slaves than are Black people today who get government subsidies. Needless to say, Bundy did not notice that the very thing he was demanding for himself was a government handout – free grazing on government lands.)

The high school girl refused the teacher’s request that she give up her cell phone and then defied an order from the teacher and an administrator to leave the classroom.  Cliven Bundy’s supporters “threatened government employees and officials, pointed firearms at law enforcement officers, harassed the press, called in bomb scares to local businesses, set up roadblocks on public roads, and formed lists (complete with photos and home addresses) of their perceived enemies.” [Forbes]

A Black schoolgirl thrown to the floor by a weightlifting cop twice her size — cop right, rule-breaker wrong. A rural White man with White male supporters threatening Federal law enforcers — cops wrong, rule-breakers right.

------------------------------
* More than one video has since emerged. This one – part of a newscast– clearly shows the officer flipping the girl, still in her chair/desk, backward onto the floor and then dragging her out of the chair and across the floor.

Reporting Risk

October 27, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thoughts of Mrs. S, my sister-in-law’s mother, rarely cross my mind. My brother’s wedding was the only time I ever met her. But as I read yesterday’s headlines about bacon, sausage, hot dogs, etc.  – “Processed Meat Causes Cancer” – I recalled the one salient fact about her that I knew: For lunch every day of her adult life, Mrs. S ate a hot dog. She died at age 86, having outlived most women in her cohort.

I’m using anecdotal evidence here not to refute the scientific reporting from the International Agency for Cancer Research and W.H.O. I’m not James Inhofe using a snowball in late February to demonstrate that global warming is a hoax. But those headlines do raise the problem of how to report scientific findings.

To many people, the word “cause” implies a nearly certain relationship. Gravity causes the apple to fall. Every time. The stronger the gravitational force, the harder they fall. So “Hot dogs cause cancer” means that if you eat hot dogs, you’ll get cancer. The more hot dogs you eat, the sooner and more severe the cancer.

Some headlines used the more cautious “linked to” instead of “cause.” But that too gets it wrong. It suggests that we have mere correlation with no sure cause.

The accurate headlines talked about risk. Or as the New York Times cautiously put it, “Meat Is Linked to Higher Cancer Risk.”

(Click on the image for a larger and perhaps crisper view of the bacon.)

But what is risk?  The way I explain it to intro students early in the semester is this: Risk is a way of talking about the individual as though she were a lot of people. The research shows that eating a lot of processed food increases the risk of cancer by about 18%. The overall risk of colorectal cancer in the US is about 50 per 1000. That is, if there were 1000 of you, 50 of would get cancer. Now if those thousand yous scarfed down the bacon and hot dogs, 59 yous out of the 1000 would get cancer. Your raised your risk 5rom 50 to 59 per 1000, or from 5.0% to 5.1%

Of course there’s only one of you. Either you get cancer or you don’t. You don’t get fifty one-thousandths of cancer or fifty-nine one-thousandths of cancer.

The headlines were also misleading in another way. The IARC report was not about a newly discovered increase in risk. It was about certainty. Their review of the existing research led them to put processed meats in their highest category of certainty: “causes cancer.” Non-processed red meat was in the next category: “probably causes cancer.” That increased risk for processed meats – from 5.0% to 5.1% – may have been small relative to other things you might do, like smoking cigarettes or working with asbestos, but the IARC was now sure that sausage and bacon caused that risk to increase.    

Maybe the headline should have been:      
Scientists Now Sure That Processed Meats
Cause a Small Increase in the Risk of Cancer
As for Mrs. S, she died of lung cancer. It was the cigarettes* that finally did her in, not the hot dogs – or the Ho Hos, brownies, and chocolate candy that usually followed.

----------------------
* Cigarettes have long been in the category of causes that we’re certain about. The raising of  processed meats to that same category led some news sources to the utterly wrong interpretation.
“Just two rashers of bacon a day raises your risk of cancer: Health chiefs put processed meat at same level as cigarettes” said the Daily Mail

The Guardian was worse: “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO”

Technically defensible but totally misleading.
 

Other headlines around the Internet were just plain wrong. To cite one of many,
“World Health Organization: Bacon, sausage as bad a cigarettes” WRAL.com (a Raleigh, NC radio station).

Nonsense. Cigarettes are far more harmful. They increase the risk of lung cancer not by 18% but by 2500%.

The Front Page is the Stage for Moral Outrage

October 13, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The world of the tabloids is a constant drama of moral clarity. Usually the plot centers on a moral outrage – what bad guys do and get away with – but sometimes the good guys win. The point is that the moral boundary is unmistakable, and the characters are clearly on one side or the other. The specifics can vary, and either side may win, just so long as there are black hats and white hats.

In sport, we root root root for the home team, and when they are also on the good side of a moral conflict, and when they win, that’s the story that gets the front page.  In today’s episode, the white hats and the black hats are both actually blue, but the only shades of grey are the visitors’s uniforms.

Yesterday’s playoff game between the Mets and the Dodgers at Citi Field was not just about winning and losing. It was about justice. In the previous game, Shane Utley had broken the leg of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada on a slide aimed clearly at Tejada and not at second base. The Post abandoned the usual sports euphemism of “hard” (in basketball, a player “gives the hard foul” – e.g., by smashing his elbow into another player’s body or face) and used the old-fashioned, morally charged term “dirty.”


Baseball officials had suspended Utley for his crime, so he was not in the game last night. But he played a key position in the tabloid headlines.* “Mets bash LA; Utley,” said the Post. The News was even more punishing of the Dodger who was nowhere to be seen, bashed, or kicked: “Kicked ’em in the Uts.”


In the tabloids, justice in absentia is better than no justice at all.

 -----------------------------
* New York’s broadsheet, the Times, seems not to have noticed this triumph of Good over Evil. The front page is devoid of sports news, and if there is a moral angle in any of the stories, it rests subtly between the lines. 


Science as a Bendable Vocation

October 10, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the New York Times has three items today suggesting that greed, for want of a better word, isn’t always so good – not for the public and not for science. These articles suggest that corporations sometimes deliberately distort science in order to subvert the general welfare so that they can increase their profits. I hear you gasping in disbelief.

You’re right. It would seem a commonplace observation except that so many people in such influential positions think that the profit-seeking efforts of huge investment funds and energy companies and chambers of commerce all bring unalloyed good to everyone.

1.  In an op-ed, Luigi Zingales warns about scientists nudging their research in directions favored by the people who bankroll them. Would scientists risk their reputations for a few pieces of silver? Under some conditions, yes.

A paper can be misleading or economical with the truth even when not blatantly false. . . . And reputational concerns do not work as well with sealed expert-witness testimony or paid-for policy papers that circulate only in small policy groups.

Then there is what Zingales calls “a scarier possibility”

that reputational incentives do not work because the practice of bending an opinion for money is so widespread as to be the norm.

Zingales does not give any estimate of the location of norm’s current boundary or the prevalence of such bending.

What triggered Zingales’s op-ed is Congressional testimony by economist Robert Litan and Litan’s related paper on consumer protection regarding retirement plans. It turns out that the paper was commissioned by the Capital Group, a trillion-dollar investment group not notably favorable towards consumer protection. The Capital Group generally underwrote Litan’s research, as Litan acknowledged; but they also commissioned this specific project, a fact Litan did not deem important enough to mention. Not surprisingly, the paper found that protecting consumers vis-a-vis retirement-plan brokers would be too costly.

(Zingales, by the way, is no lefty. He teaches at a business school, the Booth School of Management at the U. of  Chicago. I expect that neither he nor Booth see his mission as radicalizing future MBAs.)

It’s not just economists. For a long time we’ve known that research sponsored by drug companies finds drugs much safer and more effective than does independent research (see here, for example).. But government-sponsored research has decreased, and research by Big Pharma has grown. As Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine said in 2009,

It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.

2. Also on the op-ed page (here), Naomi Oreskes discusses the efforts of Exxon (later Exxon-Mobil) to undermine the findings of climate scientists. Internal Exxon documents going back forty years show that the company’s own scientists were telling them that carbon-based energy would change the global climate.

In 1989, the company helped to create the Global Climate Coalition to question the scientific basis for concern about climate change and prevent the United States from signing on to the international Kyoto Protocol to control greenhouse gas emissions. . . . Journalists and scientists have identified more than 30 different organizations funded by the company that have worked to undermine the scientific message and prevent policy action to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Oreskes likens the Exxon-Mobil tactics with those of tobacco companies decades earlier – a strategy to “promote a message of scientific uncertainty” where the science was in fact settled.  Of course today, tobacco companies today wouldn’t take such drastic efforts to undermine anti-smoking policies, would they?

3. The front page of the Times has a story about the Chamber of Commerce becoming the champion of the tobacco industry. The Chamber has traditionally worked for the interests of business in general regarding tax policy and regulation. Under new management in the person of Thomas J. Donohue, the Chamber is taking up the cause of smoking at home and especially abroad. And you thought “Thank You For Smoking” was a comedy.

True, their second-highest official has said, “The chamber is not opposed to tobacco regulation. Declarative statement. We don’t support smoking. Declarative statement.” Declarative but false.

The chamber’s own letters, many of which have been published in The New York Times, show the extent of the tobacco campaign, including an attack on excise tax in the Philippines, cigarette advertising bans in Uruguay and restrictions on smoking in public places in Moldova.

Needless to say, the tobacco industry and the Chamber also do research. Guess what the research finds.

During his first stint with the chamber in the early 1980s, [Donohue] was called on to calm restive cigarette makers, who were angered by a chamber health booklet that said smoking increases absenteeism. Mr. Donohue invited the tobacco industry to “supply some additional data” for a revised version, according to a letter later made public. Within a few years, the industry was citing chamber research that found “smoking has no influence on an employee’s likelihood of being absent.”

Philip Morris directed the chamber’s work on a polling project surveying attitudes about government-funded litigation. The chamber took the lead in public, while “PM stays in the background,” a Philip Morris memo outlined. The cigarette maker selected the polling firm and reviewed the questions.


Three articles in one day (and I haven’t read the whole newspaper). Maybe the Times save all its tilted-science articles for Saturday. Or maybe it’s just the Times, and if I had instead looked at the Wall Street Journal I would have found articles about all the unbiased research done by virtuous corporate-sponsored scientists.