Sociology and Changing Times

February 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Things change. Watch the video (go ahead, it’s only five seconds long).

(Please ignore the offensive and irrelevant “blonde” in the title. “Secretary” would be better on all counts. )

Maybe you laughed out loud. And if your kids were in the room, maybe they asked you what was funny. Show them the video. Did they laugh? Did they get the joke? (The text that accompanies the video says that people under 40 won’t get it.)

I may use this in my class as a lead-in to the origins of sociology. Tönnies and Gemeinschaft, Durkheim and solidarity, Weber and rationalization. I always fear that students will see these thinkers as merely idle intellectuals coming up with fancy ideas and vocabulary for no other reason than to make life difficult for undergraduates a century later. I want students to see them as real people who were facing big changes, changes that they thought were important, puzzling, and even troubling.

My strategy of late has been to ask students what they think of as the most important events of the past 25-30 years. I also ask them the same question about inventions.

The list of events was slow in coming and a bit quirky:
  • The Iraq wars
  • 9/11
  • Election of Obama
  • Death of Michael Jackson (I don’t judge; I just write ’em on the board).
  • Haiti earthquake
  • Katrina
  • Tsunami of 2004 (there was a disaster chain of association)
  • Fall of the Berlin Wall
  • Formation of the European Union (from an older student, born in Europe)
They had an easier time with inventions:
  • Computers
  • The Internet
  • Cell Phones
  • iPods
  • Facebook
  • Fiberoptics
In fact, their list, although shorter, was strikingly similar to a list generated a year ago by a panel of judges at the Wharton school. (Drek too, here, has recently played this game.)

Then comes the hard part. Why are these important? In what ways have they changed, or will they change, our lives? Will we look back in 25 years and say, “Yes, the death of Michael Jackson – that changed everything,”? (When I asked this in class, the student who had contributed it agreed to take it off the list.) But even with 9/11, the question isn’t an easy one. We know we’re in a “post-9/11 world,” but how is it different from the pre-9/11 world?

The inventions were less baffling. Students thought it made a difference that you could be friends with someone thousands of miles away, someone you’d never met face to face. Or that you could form a group based on narrow interests with people you never could have met otherwise, people all over the world. But they had a hard time saying just how those changes would be important in their lives or how these things would change society.

My point was that with many of these things, we are in the same position as the early sociological thinkers. They were responding to events, chiefly the French Revolution and its legacy, and technological change, the Industrial Revolution. Their task was to come up with a way of talking about these changes, making sense of them, and figuring out their impact on how people lived their lives and thought about themselves and others.

I think the exercise was useful. Maybe some of the students saw it as just bullshitting about stuff we had no conclusions or information about. But my hope is that it gave students some appreciation of the thinkers we were going to be looking at and of the important changes that began around 1800. Some students have only the dimmest knowledge of the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution (stuff that happened a long time ago in high school). I hope that the analogy with 9/11 and the Internet help.

Packaging Air

February 26, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

(A Dan Myers* kind of post)

I had to buy low-dose aspirin (81 mg). One a day, supposedly good for the heart. I went for the generic brand, of course. It came in two sizes – 120 pills and 300 pills. The larger size was the better bargain. And it certainly looked much larger on the shelf.

Then I got home and opened the package. The bottle was mostly empty. I had bought a lot of air. The 300 little aspirin tablets were all there I guess, though I didn’t bother to count them. But they would have fit into a bottle one-third the size. The pill packers hadn’t even put in the usual wads of cotton to fill out the empty space. (What are you supposed to do with that cotton anyway? Do you swallow it with the aspirin, or before? Or do you use it to sop up spilled water?)

In the picture, I’ve dumped the 300 aspirin into a plastic cup that’s about the same diameter as the bottle, and I’ve drawn a line on the bottle to show the level the aspirin reached.

*Dan would have made a video showing the 2/3 empty bottle and him pouring the aspirin into the glass, and maybe popping one into his mouth. Or probably something more amusing. Like taking a huge bag of potato chips, pounding on it till the contents were small particles, and then pouring that into a thimble.

Pimp My Write

February 23, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It doesn’t have much to do with sociology, but this correction in the Times was too good to pass up.

“Pimp” as a verb has now become such a mainstream term that a Times reporter mistakes pumped up for pimped out. (The full Times article is here.)

Ben Yagoda says that the title he really preferred for his book on the parts of speech was Pimp My Ride. The name of the MTV show provides such a good example of the fluidity of parts of speech – a noun turned into a verb, a verb into a noun. Instead, he went with When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It.

Hat Tip: Brendan Nyhan reporting a tweet from Ben Smith at Politico

Cooking the Books - A Second Look

February 19, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Do the police undercount crime?

The graph I cribbed from Rick Rosenfeld in yesterday’s post showed a remarkable similarity between victimization surveys and official crime statistics. In 2000, for example the rate of reported burglaries according to the NCVS was nearly identical to the UCR rate. Both were about 4.4 per 1,000.

Yet in the recent Eterno-Silverman study, police commanders, responding anonymously, said that crime statistics were suppressed. And Josh in his comment yesterday refers to Peter Moskos’s “let me count the ways” description of how the police keep crimes off the books. (See Moskos’s own take on the study at his website.)

The problem is that the graph I presented was somewhat misleading The NCVS and UCR rates of burglary do not measure exactly the same thing. It’s not exactly oranges and apples; more like oranges and tangerines.

1. The NCVS data are for the New York metro area, so we have to use similar UCR data even though the rap about fudging the stats is only about the NYPD. No way to get around that problem

2. More crucially, the NCVS counts only residential burglaries; the UCR number includes both commercial and residential burglaries. Nationwide, about 2/3 of all UCR burglaries are residential. Using that figure for the New York area we get a UCR rate for Residential burglaries of only 3.0 per 1,000 population, about one-third less than we would expect from the estimate of the number of residential burglaries that victims say they reported. Here’s an amended graph. I’ve added a line for residential burglaries that uses the simple 2/3 formula.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The rate of residential burglaries that victims say that they report is usually one-and-a-half to two times greater than the rate of residential burglaries officially “known to the police.” For the year 2000, the NCVS rate of 4.4 per 1,000 population works out to 40,000 reported residential burglaries. If 2/3 of burglaries are residential, only 27,500 of those made it onto the police books.

Does that mean that the police canned 12,5000 reported burglaries? Probably not. There may be other explanations for the some of the discrepancy. But the data do provide some support for those who are skeptical of the precision of the police numbers.

Cooking the Crime Books?

February 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Crimes known to the police” is the official count of Crime in the United States – the annual report published by the FBI, which compiles data from local police departments. It’s also known as the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR).

Many years ago, a friend of mine found that his car had been broken into and wanted to report the crime to the police. He went to the local precinct, and when the desk sergeant finally acknowledged him, he said, “Someone broke into my car and stole my stuff.”

“So what do you want me to do?” said the sergeant.

That was one larceny that never became “known to the police,” at least not on the books of the 20th precinct.

The problem of uncounted crime has been around a long time. In the late 1940s, New York’s burglary rate grew by 1300% in a single year, a huge increase but entirely attributable to changes in bookkeeping. Word had gone out that burglaries should no longer be routinely assigned to “Detective Can.”

In the 1980s, Chicago’s robbery rate rose after the FBI threatened the city that it wouldn’t include their data because the numbers were so suspect. Atlanta kept its numbers artificially low prior to the Olympics. This week, the Dallas police chief is under attack for the way his department reports crimes.

Now two criminologists, John Eterno and Eli Silverman, are claiming that New York’s crime data have been fudged consistently for the last 15 years, and they point to CompStat as the culprit (NY Times article here.) CompStat is the system that William Bratton brought to New York when he became police commissioner in 1994. It required commanders to report every week on statistics and patterns of crime in their areas.

Eterno and Silverman gave anonymous surveys to retired precinct commanders, Under pressure to appear effective in the war on crime, precinct commanders might stretch the facts. The value of a theft might be creatively investigated to keep the total under the $1000 threshold a misdemeanor and the felony known as “grand larceny.” Felonies look worse on your statistical report.

A purse snatch might get recorded as a theft instead of a robbery because robberies fall into the broader category of “violent” crimes. Or victims, like my friend in the old days, might be persuaded not to bother reporting the crime.

In an op-ed in the Times yesterday, Bratton vigorously defended the NYPD numbers. He provided no data, but he could have.

Since 1973, the US has had an alternate count of crime, the National Crime Victimization Survey. Most of the data are for the US, but Rick Rosenfeld and Janet Lauritsen were able to get three-year averages for New York City, and they have looked at the data for burglary.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The graph shows the rate (percents) of
  • people who told the NCVS they had been victims of a burglary
  • people who say they reported the burglary to the police
  • the official rate of burglaries “known to the police”
The numbers are not precisely comparable (the NCVS rate may be based on households rather than population, and the UCR rate includes commercial burglaries as well as residential). But the data in the graph do not support the idea that CompStat increased the fudging of burglary statistics If it had, then starting in 1994, we should see a widening gap between the NCVS line and the UCR line, with the UCR line moving downward much more. But if anything, it’s the Victimization line that descends more steeply.

In the decade following CompStat, both sources of data show a 68% decrease in burglary. So if commanders were cooking the books, they weren't including burglary in the recipe.

Snow Job

February 17, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Watching toddlers in the snow last week reminded me of a bit the Daily show did a few weeks ago about the Fox News gang. The segment, narrated by John Oliver, zeroed in on a theme that runs through much of the conservative hand-wringing about the present state of the country: “an incredibly over-simplistic nostalgia.” Here were Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly all mourning the passing of the “the America we grew up in,” “those simpler times when people were together.”

We see a quick montage of each right winger saying, “when I was a kid.” Then Oliver’s aha moment: “It was a better, simpler time because they were all six years old!”

I’ve mentioned this before (here) – the tendency to confuse phylogeny with ontogeny. To the child, the world is a secure place with simple rules that have to be followed, a world where grown-ups are powerful, restricting but also nurturing. But when the child grows up and becomes an adult, the world as he sees it is a much less certain place, and his own powers to control things are limited.

What does that have to do with snow? There’s a cartoon (if I could draw worth a damn, I’d do a version of it here) that captures this same idea. It shows a father and his young son walking in deep snow.  It comes up to about knee-level on the father, but for the little boy, it’s nearly chest high, and he is struggling to walk. The father is gesturing, holding hand flat at the level of his own waist, and saying, “This is nothing. When I was a kid, we had snow up to here.” And when that child grows up, he too will remember waist-high snow.

In the same way, the Fox guys are all saying, “When I was a kid, the America that I grew up in was a safe, caring, and simple place.” Since these men all grew up in different eras, as Oliver pointed out, the nostalgia is not for a bygone America; it’s for a bygone childhood.

If You’re Gay, You’re O.K. . . .

February 13, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

. . . .but if you’re homosexual, it’s more conjectural.*

When a recent New York Times / CBS poll asked about gays in the military, the survey split the sample and asked the question two ways. Half the sample were asked about “homosexuals,” half were asked about “gays and lesbians.” The good news is that whatever the phrasing, only a minority opposed allowing gays to serve. But respondents were far more tolerant of “gays and lesbians” than they were of “homosexuals.”

(For a larger view, click on the chart.)

More simply, people favored “gays/lesbians” 70 to 19; “homosexuals” by 54 to 29.

The results on Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell are less clear. People who were in favor were further asked if their opinion extended even to those who were out. Of the 70% who favored “gays and lesbians,” 58% favored even the uncloseted. Among the 54% who favored “homosexuals,” only 44%.

On the one hand, that means the openly “homosexual” are seen less favorably than are the openly “gay.” On the other, when the “openly announce” condition was added, of the 70 who favored allowing “gays/lesbians” in the military, 22 changed their minds. Among those who favored allowing “homosexuals,” the attrition was only 10 of 54. However, with an N of only 500 in each group, these results may not be so reliable.

* The allusion here is to the old song, “If you’re white, you’re all right . . .” the same one that Rev. Lowery referenced in his benediction at the end of the inauguration thirteen months ago (here, beginning at about 4:30 – highly recommended). Or listen to the original song by Big Bill Broonzy.

Hoop Nightmares

February 12, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston
Recruiting college athletes probably wasn’t funny even when Comden and Green made fun of it in “Pass the Football” in Wonderful Town in 1953. The former college hero, Wreck, sings*:
Couldn’t spell a lick,
Couldn’t do arithmetic;
One and one made three,
Thought that dog was c-a-t,

But I could pass that football
Like nothin’ you have ever seen. . . .

I couldn’t even tell red from green,
Get those verbs through my bean,
But I was buddies with the dean
Like nothin’ you have ever seen.
And now Binghamton. It wasn’t football, it was basketball, and it wasn’t the dean, it was the president. And Wreck, unlike the scholar athletes at Binghamton, wasn’t selling crack or using stolen debit cards. That on top of no-show courses, plagiarized papers, and lesser academic offenses.

But why? Academically, Binghamton had elevated itself to star position in the SUNY system. It was getting many of the New York’s brightest students. What would a Division I basketball team add? Why did President De Fleur feel that having a good basketball team was so important? And why, in this effort, did she take Jerry Tarkanian as a role model?

Did she think that a great team would improve the school’s finances? If so, she was not looking at the evidence. Most men’s basketball programs (football too) bring in less money than they cost.

There’s a larger institutional story here, and it’s been told before. It starts with this odd amalgam of sports and higher learning, and it has grown according to its own internal logic. It’s sort of like our “system” of health care. If we were starting from scratch, would anyone propose what we now have as a good way to provide health care to a nation? If we were starting over with our institutions of higher learning, would anyone propose that universities house professional-level competitive sports programs, with all the demands these make on the athletes and the institution?
*The song is best in context. Unfortunately, the most listenable version I could find on YouTube is a concert version at a rather torpid tempo by Simon Rattle. I know I should have hung this post on a peg more up to date than an ancient Broadway musical, but I just saw South Pacific (1949) last night.

Methods and Madness - A Snowstorm and Global Warming

February 11, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the first week of intro, I talk about sociology as a science and the need for systematic evidence as opposed to anecdotal evidence. Using anecdotal evidence to “prove” a point has an obvious flaw – the conclusion depends entirely on who is gathering the evidence. It's an easy lesson, and the students all get the idea. As I say, the flaw is obvious.

Or is it?

Last night, The Daily Show strung together snippets of people on national TV (OK, mostly Fox News) using the current snowstorm in the Eastern US to disprove global warming.

“It’s one storm in one region of one country,” says Jon Stewart, “It makes no sense to extrapolate. . . .”

Here’s the clip. The relevant portion begins at about 3:45

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Unusually Large Snowstorm
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Is this extreme convenience sampling? Or, here in the East, is it snowball sampling?

Superbowl 2010 – The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money

February 7, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Wisdom-of-Crowds theory says that the “crowd” – the average of interested speculators – is smarter than any one expert. If you want to figure out the weight of an ox or the location of a lost ship or the outcome of an election, go with the flow.

The contrarian position, at least on football games, says that the bookies are smarter than the general public. (For an earlier post on this topic, with links to still earlier posts, go here .)

Here’s what that means in the Superbowl. The bookmakers’ initial line had the Colts favored by 3½ to 4 points.* The money poured in on the Colts.

Bookmakers do not like to change their lines, especially by more than a half-point,** but in order to attract money on the Saints, they moved the line up to 5½ or even 6. That, plus some injury news on a Colts player, brought in Saints money, so much that some books moved the line down as low as 4 ½. The public is back on the Colts, and the line is going back up. As of this writing (11:45 a.m.), at some online, offshore books, you can get the Saints plus 6 (though you may have to pay 15% rather than the customary 10% on losing bets).

If you believe in the Wisdom of Crowds, you’ll follow the herd, give the points, and take the Colts. If you are a Smart Money contrarian, you’ll take the Saints and the points. (You’ll wait till game time draws closer, hoping that even more public money comes in on the Colts, driving up the line even higher.)

Of course, the Superbowl is one game, far too small an n to confirm one theory or another. On the whole this season, my impression is that public teams did better than usual – not enough to put the bookies out of business, but paring their profit margins somewhat.

If I were betting tonight, I’d take the Saints. I might even take them to win on the field and repay me to the tune of $170 to $100. But the Steelers didn’t even make it to the playoffs this year, so who really cares?


* Strictly speaking, the bookmakers set the line not to balance score but to balance the action. With an equal amount bet on each side, they make their 5% regardless of who wins on the field. But, especially in big games that will draw a lot of action, the initial line closely reflects the books’ assessment of the teams. (Old sax players may also be fond of Balanced Action.)

** A bookmaker who moves the line runs the risk of getting “middled.” Suppose the original line is Colts -3 ½ and everyone bets the Colts. The bookie raises the line to 5 and everyone now bets the Saints +5. If the final score is Colts 35, Saints 31, the outcome falls in the middle of the two lines, and the bookie loses all bets.

UPDATE 9:45 p.m.: If you
ve read this far, you probably know the outcome. The Saints won 31-17. The crowd was wrong on the point spread and on the under/over.

What Was the Question?

February 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Survey questions may seem straightforward, but especially if the poll is a one-off, with questions that haven’t been used in other polls, you can’t always be sure how the respondents interpret them.

The Kos/Research 2000 poll of Republicans has been getting some notice, and no wonder. At first glance, it seems to show that one of our two major political parties is home to quite a few people who are not fully in touch with reality, especially when Obama is in view.

Do you believe Barack Obama is a racist who hates White people?
Yes 31
No 36
Not Sure 33

Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win?
Yes 24
No 43
Not Sure 33

Should Barack Obama be impeached, or not?
Yes 39
No 32
Not Sure 29

I’m not sure what the results mean. Self-identified Republicans are about 25% of the electorate.* If one-third of them hold views that are “ludicrous” (Kos’s term), that’s still only 8% of the voters.

But what about non-ludicrous Republicans. Suppose you were a mainstream conservative and Research 2000 phoned you. To find out, I put some of the questions to a Republican I know – non-ludicrous (he reads the Wall Street Journal, he doesn’t watch Glenn Beck.)

Do you believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President than Barack Obama? (In the survey, 53% said, “yes.”)

Such a loaded question! I think she's nuts and he's sane – but in principle, she's right and he's wrong about most issues.

Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win?

They don't WANT terrorists to win – no – but they don't care as much about the battle as most Americans do.

He might have said Yes to the interviewer just because he thought a Yes was more in line with the spirit of the question than with its actual wording. Or he would have refused to answer (and possibly have been put in the “Not sure” category?)

So the questions are more ambiguous than they seem, even on close reading.

Should public school students be taught that the book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world?
Seventy-seven per cent of the sample said, “Yes.” And Kos, who commissioned the poll in connection with his book – to be called American Taliban – will see that result as rabid pro-creationism and anti-science. But re-read the actual question. Here’s what my sane Republican had to say:

This one's easy:
Absolutely yes. “public school students should be taught” a lot of important facts about our culture and civilization – that the Greeks invaded Ilium and destroyed Troy, that Confucius was the inspiration for a great religion, that Thomas A. Edison invented the electric light bulb, that Darwin in his Origin of the Species explained how animals change according to the process of natural selection, and “that the book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world.” Why the hell not teach that fact? Who could say no to that?

Who indeed? Not me.

* The poll may have oversampled the fringe (see Emily Swanson at Pollster ), but those folks at the fringe are more likely to be active at the local level, so it’s possible they’ll swing some weight at the national level too. Their preferred candidate is, of course, Sarah Palin. So while political scientists think the poll may be exaggerating the far right (see Joshua Tucker’s excellent critique at The Monkey Cage), the Palinstas are hailing the poll as spot on.

Capitalism, the Movie

February 4, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Oscar nominations were announced, and Hollywood columnist Michael Medved is perturbed that two of the nominees, “Avatar” and “Up in the Air,” paint an unfavorable portrait of US corporations.

How could Hollywood continue to turn out these anti-business films when Americans, according to Medved, are so pro-business?
In a 2009 Gallup Poll about the “biggest threat to the country in the future,” 65% selected “big government” or “big labor,” while fewer than half as many (32%) fingered “big business.”
I’d just picked up Joel Best’s Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data, so it occurred to me that if government, business, and labor were equally perceived as threats, lumping any two of them together (government and labor), would leave the third with half as many. But Medved didn’t have to put his thumb on the scale. Here’s the graph from Gallup.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

People who see big government as the biggest threat do in fact outnumber those who point the finger at big business. But business beats out labor as a threat by three to one.

So why, when offered films like “Wall Street” or “Wall-E” do Americans not stay away in droves? If Medved had browsed more of the Gallup data, he might have found that American feelings about big business are more complicated than his own unconditional love. Even in the one question he does cite, nearly a third of us see big business as “the biggest threat to the country’s future.” That proportion had increased since the previous time Gallup had asked the question. In fact, suspicion of corporate influence was growing throughout the Bush years, perhaps because corporate influence itself was growing.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Hollywood has been making movies about greedy capitalists ever since nasty mustachioed landlords were tying poor damsels to railroad tracks. Some of these were successful; others bombed.*
As William Goldman famously said of Hollywood (and Medved quotes him), “Nobody knows anything.” That includes Michael Medved.

(The photo is not a still from a movie. It’s a scene I happened upon in Brooklyn last fall.)

Thirty years ago, Ben Stein seemed similarly perplexed by this same anti-business tendency among very well-paid Hollywood writers. Stein has a more sensible explanation than does Medved, at least as far as screenwriters are concerned. See my post here.

Snow Morning

February 3, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It wasn’t nearly enough snow to close the school, and by afternoon, it will be mostly melted, but this morning, before most classes had begun, the campus looked like this.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
The Spanish mission architecture – the white stucco walls and deep terra cotta roof tiles – of the original campus buildings is something I associate with warmer climates, but it looks good in the snow.

On the other hand, as you walk around the snowy campus, camera in hand, you realize how truly ugly some of the buildings from the 1950s and 60s are (and you keep them out of your pictures).