Is That Evidence in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Writing an Op-Ed?

February 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Nobody looks to USA Today op-eds for methodologically scrupulous research. But even by these standards, James Alan Fox’s opinion piece this morning (here) was a bit clumsy. Fox was arguing against the idea that allowing guns on campus would reduce sexual assaults.

You have to admit, the gunlovers are getting kind of cute with this proposal. They are ostensibly paying attention to a liberal issue – the victimization of women – but their policy proposal is one they know liberals will hate. Next thing you know, the “guns everywhere” folks will be proposing concealed carry as a way to reduce economic inequality. After all, aren’t guns the great equalizer?

What makes the guns-on-campus debate so frustrating is that there’s not much relevant evidence. The trouble with Fox’s op-ed is that he pretends there is.

However compelling the deterrence argument, the evidence suggests otherwise. According to victimization figures routinely collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the sexual assault victimization rate for college women is considerably lower (by more than one-third) than that among their non-college counterparts of the same age range. Thus, prohibiting college women from carrying guns on campus does not put them at greater risk.

You can’t legitimately compare college women on college campuses with non-college women in all the variety of non-college settings. There are just too many other relevant variables. The relevant comparison would be between colleges that allow guns and those than don’t, and there are very few of the latter. Yet even if more campuses begin to allow concealed carry, comparisons with gun-free campuses will be plagued by all the methodological problems that leave the “more guns, less crime” studies open to debate.

The rest of Fox’s op-ed about what might happen is speculation, some of it reasonable and some of it not. “Would an aroused and inebriated brute then use his ‘just in case of emergency’ gun to intimidate some non-consenting woman into bed? Submit or you’re dead?” 

But the “pure speculation” label also applies to the arguments that an armed student body will be a polite and non-sexually-assaultive student body.  Well, as long as we’re speculating, here’s my guess, based on what we know from off-campus data: the difference between gun-heavy campuses and unarmed campuses will turn up more in the numbers of accidents and suicides than in the number of sex crimes committed or deterred, and all these numbers will be small.

Predicting the Oscars

February 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Of the films nominated for Best Picture, “American Sniper” is the clear winner at the box office. But will it will win Best Picture? or Director? or Actor?  Nobody thinks so, even its ardent supporters on the political right. How do they know?

It’s not like elections, where a hundred polls blossom to survey voters. Google Consumer Surveys did as the public (though not a random sample), and Sniper easily picked off the competition. David Leonhardt at the New York Times (here) provided this graph:

(Click on a graphic for a larger view.)

But the Oscars are decided not by the public but by the Academy. Nobody is polling them. Their views are not those of the public (or those on both the right and left put it, they are “out of touch”). So we are left with the equivalent of what readers of the racing from know as “past performances” - other races against the same competition. That means the critics’ ratings, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and SAG. In all these the Sniper crew were pretty much left out in the desert.

We also have the prediction markets, where the price of an investment reflects roughly the collective wisdom of the bettors. Several posts in this blog have contrasted this  “wisdom of crowds” with the views of “the smart money,” a relative handful of professional bettors. By watching the moves of the point spread, you can make a pretty good guess as to which side the crowd is on. If you had bet against their wisdom on NFL games this past season, you’d be well on the plus side.

With the Academy Awards, while the public may have an opinion, they do not place bets, except in office pools. My guess is that the action at the prediction markets comes mostly from a much smaller and better-informed number of participants.  It’s all smart money. And they do not think much of Sniper’s chances.  Predictwise has “Birdman” as having a 67% chance of winning, “American Sniper” only a 0.3% chance. The comparable figures at Betfair are 60% and 1.5% respectively.

The prices at Hollywood Stock Exchange tell a slightly different story.

How do the HSX bettors decide what to bid? I don’t know. I thought that history of the price changes might provide a clue. In some cases, the betting suggests a kind of cascade. People see the price going up and follow what they assume is smart money. The performances of J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Julianne Moore were no better – relative to the competition – yesterday than they were a month earlier. But in that month the price of Arquette relative to that of Felicity Jones has gone from about 2.5-1 to 9-1.*

Other changes are more puzzling. Here are the prices for “Birdman” and “American Sniper.”

On  Jan. 23, a bet that would pay $25 if  “American Sniper” won cost $8.91, while a similar bet on “Birdman”was only $1.51.  Now a “Birdman” bet costs six times as much as “American Sniper.” What happened on Jan. 23? I don’t know. It wasn’t the announcement of winners at BAFTA, Golden Globes, or SAG.  Maybe some more knowing reader can provide some enlightenment.

UPDATE: Feb. 22, 8:30 p.m. EST.  Since I  grabbed those HSX graphs yesterday, the bettors have been hitting “Birdman”and abandoning “Boyhood.”  As the market moved to the close, “Birdman” would have cost you another $10. “Boyhood” was cheaper by a similar amount. If this were football, I’d be going with “Boyhood.”

* Simmons, Arquette, and Moore now look like sure things. For my favorite anecdote about Oscar predictions, see this 2007 post  about the time I put a multiple-choice question on the midterm asking what would win Best Picture.

My Sweet Old et al.

February 15, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some fashions trickle down through the social class lattice.  It’s as though people look to those just above them to see what they’re wearing or what names they’re giving their kids. I see the same process with some words, though the crucial dimension is not wealth but apparent intelligence or education. You hear someone use the word fortuitous. It sounds so much more sophisticated than fortunate, and it seems to mean the same thing. So you swap out the more pedestrian term, and the next time you catch a lucky break, you say that it was fortuitous.

When something is perfect, why say that it’s merely ideal when you could say that it’s idyllic? It sounds similar, and you hear people use it in a context where ideal would also work, so it probably means the same thing. It just sounds so much more like a word the very well educated would use.  That’s why when I serve the salad, I ask my guests for their choice of dressage, which has the added advantage of sounding French.

And now we have Gwyneth Paltrow trying to jack up the tone of her advice just a notch. Here is a report from The Guardian.

(Click for a slightly larger view.)

It wasn’t the Mugwort the got me. It was the Latin. What happened to etc.Et (and) cetera (the rest of these things).  Et al. is for when the too-numerous-to-mention are people rather than things. They are alia – others. In the footnotes, et alia (“and other people”) gets abbreviated to et al. 

Needless to say, et al. is the province of the very educated –  the kind of people who talk about articles that have multiple authors. Etc., by contrast, seems so ordinary. Everyone uses it. So to give your Mugowrt advice a more scholarly aura, use et al.  Like idyllic, it’s gotta mean the same thing as the ordinary version.  Except it doesn’t. Steaming your vagina to “cleanse your uterus, et al.

Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?

The Very Reasonable Dutch

February 11, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

An early post on this blog (here) compared two ways of framing bad behavior – as an evil to be punished or as a problem to be solved. The behavior was trivial and hardly evil – men peeing carelessly rather than mindfully, with reeking men’s rooms the result. The Amsterdam solution exemplified the Dutch problem-solving approach. Americans, I imagined, would have relied on punishment.

Peter Moskos has taken his Cop in the Hood blog to Amsterdam for a short while, and he reports on a similarly rational approach to a real problem. Amsterdam has long be a Mecca for pharmaco-tourism, and two tourists had died recently from wrongly identified drugs (heroin sold as cocaine).

The city put up signs to warn tourists. It may seem like common sense, but what American city would do this?

See the full post here, complete with pictures of the signs and most impressively, a letter from the mayor – a letter whose reasonable tone is hard to imagine from an American mayor faced with a similar problem.

Making Memories

February 10, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

An article in the Science section of today’s New York Times (here) says pretty much what I said in the previous post about memory and Brian Williams.  The author, Tara Parker-Pope, even uses the same metaphor – that most people think of memory as a video camera.

Here is how Parker-Pope puts it:

But the truth is our memories can deceive us — and they often do.

Numerous scientific studies show that memories can fade, shift and distort over time. Not only can our real memories become unwittingly altered and embellished, but entirely new false memories can be incorporated into our memory bank, embedded so deeply that we become convinced they are real and actually happened.

She then quotes  Elizabeth Loftus, the doyenne of eyewitness-testimony research, whose studies are also very relevant to questions about memory.

“You’ve got all these people saying the guy’s a liar and convicting him of deliberate deception without considering an alternative hypothesis — that he developed a false memory. . .  It’s a teaching moment, and a chance to really try to get information out there about the malleable nature of memory.”

Good luck with the teaching and really getting the word out. When Science goes up against ideology and common-sense, don’t bet the ranch on Science.

A more interesting question arises if Williams’s helicopter story is not a one-off but just the latest in a series of anecdotes that exaggerate the dangers he faced.  As with the helicopter story, it doesn’t mean that Williams was deliberately lying.  I would also imagine that all of us, when we unknowingly alter our memories, do what Williams did. We make them consistent with our image of ourselves and the world. 

Still, individuals differ, and while we all edit our memories and mistake the most recent version for the original, some people may revise the past more extensively and frequently.  Maybe Williams is doing what we all do but on a larger scale. As someone said of Warren Beatty in his Hollywood Lothario days, “He puts his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. He just does it more often.”*


*Even if more helicopter-like stories turn up, there are other possible explanations:

  • Williams’s enhanced memories are no more frequent than yours and mine,, but now since the helicopter imbroglio, his entire folder of stories is getting far more attention than anyone else’s.
  • Williams’s faulty memories are no more frequent, but they have much greater exposure.  Williams is called on (and paid well) to speak publicly about his work; he tells the stories audiences want to hear, and these often involve danger, drama, and important events.  My stories don’t have those elements; do yours? So no far fewer people will hear them. And although our stories may suffer from inaccurate memory, the cannot be easily fact checked. Williams’s stories can and are.

Ah Yes, I Remember It Well

February 6, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t think Brian Williams was lying.  Obviously he wasn’t telling the truth. The helicopter he was in was not hit by an RPG. But a lie is a deliberate falsehood – telling people something that you know to be untrue. Surely Williams is not so stupid as to think that he could get away with such a fabrication. He would have little to gain, and, as we are seeing, much to lose.

Instead, I think it was what Williams says it was – messed-up memory.  At some point in his recalling and recounting of the incident, he swapped in someone else’s experience for his own. After all, he was in the same place, he was in a helicopter, and did talk with the soldiers whose chopper was hit. So maybe he was feeling roughly the same emotions that he imagined they felt.

Once that idea became embedded in his mind, he constructed a story that fit. And the more often he told that story, the clearer and sharper it became both as a coherent narrative and as a memory.

Robert Krulwich too is a non-print journalist. He’s worked at ABC, CBS, and NPR.  Take four and a half minutes and watch this video. It’s an animated version of a “This American Life” story showing how Krulwich appropriated an anecdote that happened to his wife. He would regale friends with the anecdote, recounting it as an eyewitness, when in fact he had only heard about it second-hand from his wife. Yet he was absolutely convinced that he was there.

Should Krulwich be banned from the media? Should we distrust everything that he has ever reported?

What Krulwich and Williams did is something we all do. Forty years of research about memory has shown that memory is not a camcorder; it’s an editing program. We edit – dropping some details, altering, sharpening, and even adding others. We hit “Save,” and when we next call up the memory, we are opening not the original but the most recent edit of the file.

Unfortunately, most people still think of memory as a camcorder, and they are convinced that if someone remembers something that is not true, he must be lying and is therefore untrustworthy.* They’re wrong, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t see how Williams is going to survive this one.


* Reaction to bad memory is not quite so simple. In this case, politics plays a part. Over on the right, the air is thick with schadenfreude over Williams’s troubles. Those same delighted folks were much more forgiving of Ronald Reagan’s memory lapses and conflation of movies with reality.


February 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

For Seattle fans, it was what poker players call a “bad beat” – a big pot and a hand that’s nearly sure to win but then loses on the final, unlikely card. A loss like that can dampen enthusiasm for things beyond football, at least in the short run. On the other hand, a sudden and satisfying victory can whet other appetites.

PornHub, which purports to be the most popular place for porn, ran its data on traffic before, during, and after the big game (their full report is here). The chart below shows the data for the home cities of the two teams plus Phoenix, where the game took place.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

As you might expect, the Super Bowl took a bite out of porn, and more so in Boston and Seattle than in other cities.  The folks who would ordinarily be checking in to PornHub started leaving early for an hour or two of pre-game hype, and of course they stayed for the real game.  Even Katy Perry held their attention at halftime.

But after Pete Carrol’s game-losing call and Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception, porn paths parted. The seekers in Seattle hurried back online while those in Boston apparently stuck with their TVs for some of the post-game ceremony.

Then, about an hour after the game, porn traffic in Boston rose and didn’t begin to taper off until after midnight. But in Seattle, the post-Bowl bump was shorter lived. Even though the night was young (8 p.m. PST) the Seattle fans lost their interest in PornHub. Phoenix, in the Mountain time zone,  is a useful comparison. Even though the hour was later, Phoenix pornophiles were still checking in as their disheartened Seattle counterparts were logging out.

In the end, it was Seattle that was deflated.

A Most Unreflective Businessman

February 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I won’t do business in New York,” my father once told me.  When I asked why, he described how New York customers would cheat in order to push down the price they paid for his steel.

I hadn’t thought about that for a while. The memory came back just after I saw “A Most Violent Year” set in the grimy and graffiti-covered New York of 1981. The hero, Abel Morales, is trying to expand his heating oil business, but someone is out to thwart him. His trucks are hijacked, the oil stolen. His employees are threatened and beaten up.  In addition, the DA trying to clean up the heating oil business has gotten a 14-count indictment, and the bank withdraws the loan they had agreed to.

My father’s customers did nothing violent or illegal, just unethical and dishonest.  Why would they do that, I asked my father. I was young and naive. “Guys in New York,” he said, “it’s a tough market.”

I was amazed that he could be so understanding.  But he recognized that people in business acted not solely on the basis personal morality. In some markets, you had to be a little dishonest in order to survive. That’s the point that both Abel and the “A Most Violent Year” try very hard to ignore.  Instead, the movie, at least on its surface, seems to be trying to convey the message – that cliche that runs from old Westerns to the latest thrillers – that even in a corrupt world, an honest man acting honorably can come out on top. The bad guys may lie, cheat, steal, kill, kidnap, or whatever, unconstrained by any moral sense; yet the good guy, using only honorable means, will win. The good guy’s goodness and the bad guy’s wickedness are never in doubt. Doubt, in fact, is usually irrelevant.

Because Hollywood prefers this simplified view of morality, we have very few honest films about business. In “A Most Violent Year,” at least we see a more realistic businessman – successful, even wealthy, but not all powerful, running a small company, dealing with everyday crises, trying to negotiate loans so he can stay afloat. More often in Hollywood films, businessmen are the sinister, greedy, and powerful CEOs of large corporations. The Montgomery Burns caricature in “The Simpsons”  is not too distant from executives in serious movies.

I can think of only one movie centered on a businessman faced with moral problems that have no simple, untainted solution – “Save the Tiger” from 1973.

“A Most Violent Year” could have been such a movie, but Abel never admits to himself that his motives and actions are anything but pure. The trailer gives some suggestion of his resoluteness. 

Others recognize that the the heating oil business is a compromised and compromising world. “Everyone in this room is fully capable of lying to their own mothers on their deathbeds,” says Peter Forente at a meeting of the fifteen important players in the business. Forente is the son of a mobster now in prison, but Peter is trying to do things differently to the extent he can. When Abel asks him for a much-needed loan, Peter tells him, “I don’t want you to be in this position. We are not nice people to borrow three quarters of a million dollars from.”

Abel’s wife – her father too was connected to organized crime – is aware of how that world works.  She has been keeping two sets of books, and she’s been skimming money over the years, apparently without her husband – the head of the company – knowing.  She has put  enough money aside that Abel won’t have to borrow from the “not nice people.”  She shows him a slip of paper with the sum on it.

What do you expect me to do with this?
Use it.... Abel...
Is it clean?
It’s as clean as every other dollar we’ve ever made.
That’s a fucking bullshit answer.

[a few moments later]

I’ll get it done. And it won’t be as a cheat.
(Yelling, but controlled enough to not wake the kids.)
Oh you are too much. You’ve been walking around your whole life like this all happened because of your hard work, good luck, and charm. Mr. Fucking American Dream. Well this is America... but it’s not a dream, and that wasn’t good luck helping you out all those years... IT WAS ME! Doing the things you didn’t want to know about...

Somehow, Abel acts as though he still does not to know about those things, continuing to believe in his own rectitude. In fact, compared with the other oil dealers, he is more honorable. Yet, despite the phony books (which he helps to hide under his house when law enforcement comes snooping), despite the felony indictment, despite all those dollars he made being equally clean (i.e., not so clean), he fails to confront or even acknowledge the moral ambiguities. Abel is like so many other protagonists in American films.  All conflict is external. Life is about solving problems. Self-doubt would only get in the way.

No Pass on the Passive

February 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The idea that the passive voice must be avoided at all costs is of course wrong-headed. Still, passive voice remains a refuge for writers who would rather not say who’s doing what.

Ross Douthat, in his column today (here) on the causes of political correctness, twice says that liberal economic policy proposals “are mostly blocked.”

the paths forward for progressive economic policy are mostly blocked — and not only by a well-entrenched Republican Party, but by liberalism’s ongoing inability to raise the taxes required to pay for the welfare state we already have.* Since a long, slow, grinding battle over how to pay for those commitments is unlikely to fire anyone’s imagination, it’s not surprising that cultural causes — race, sex, identity — suddenly seem vastly more appealing.

In that first phrase, Douthat allows that it’s the Republicans who are doing the blocking, but then he adds a clause about the “liberalism’s inability” to pass economic legislation as though this inability were something different from the Republican Party. This is a little like talking about “the Colts inability to score points” without mentioning the Patriots defense.

A few paragraphs later, when Douthat repeats this idea, he doesn’t even bother to go beyond the passive voice: “because the paths to economic distribution are mostly blocked, the more plausible way . . .”  How about this rewrite: “Because Republicans block all tax and spending proposals that might discomfit the rich. . . .”

I am not saying that Douthat is wrong about the relation between the Republican’s disproportionate** dominance and the cultural left’s attention to political correctness – I think it goes beyond even what he’s talking about. But I hope that Douthat’s attempt to obscure the role of Republican legislators, in part by using the passive voice, has not gone unnoticed.***

* Douthat announces this “we can’t afford it” view of Medicare and Social Security (which account for most of “welfare state we already have”) as though it were undisputed fact. It isn’t. Nor is there agreement as to how long it will be until these programs become unaffordable if nothing is changed.

** At the national level, more people voted for Democrats than for Republicans.

*** Yes, I am well aware that this sentence breaks not only the rule against passive voice but also the rule outlwawing “not-un–” construction.