Evidence vs. Bullshit – Mobster Edition

September 21, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maria Konnikova is a regular guest on Mike Pesca’s pocast “The Gist.”  Her segment is called “Is That Bullshit.” She addresses pressing topics like
  • Compression sleeves – is that bullshit?
  • Are there different kinds of female orgasm?
  • Are artificial sweeteners bad for your health?
  • Does anger management work?
We can imagine of all kinds of reasons why compression sleeves might work or why diet soda might be unhealthful, but if you want to know if it’s bullshit, you need good evidence. Which is what Konnikova researches and reports on.

Good evidence is also the gist of my class early in the semester. I ask students whether more deaths are caused each year by fires or by drownings. Then I ask them why they chose their answer. They come up with good reasons. Fires can happen anywhere – we spend most of our time in buildings, not so much on water. Fires happen all year round; drownings are mostly in the summer. A fire may kill many people, but group drownings are rare. The news reports a lot about fires, rarely about drownings. And so on.

The point is that for a good answer to the question, you need more than just persuasive reasoning. You need someone to count up the dead bodies. You need the relevant evidence.

“Why Do We Admire Mobsters?” asks Maria Konnikova recently in the New Yorker (here).  She has some answers:
  • Prohibition: “Because Prohibition was hugely unpopular, the men who stood up to it [i.e., mobsters] were heralded as heroes, not criminals.” Even after Repeal, “that initial positive image stuck.”
  • In-group/ out-group: For Americans, Italian (and Irish) mobsters are “similar enough for sympathy, yet different enough for a false sense of safety. . .  Members of the Chinese and Russian mob have been hard to romanticize.”
  • Distance: “Ultimately the mob myth depends on psychological distance. . .  As painful events recede into the past, our perceptions soften. . . . Psychological distance allows us to romanticize and feel nostalgia for almost anything.”
  • Ideals: “We enjoy contemplating the general principles by which they are supposed to have lived: omertà, standing up to unfair authority, protecting your own.”
These are plausible reasons, but are they bullshit? Konnikova offers no systematic evidence for anything she says. Do we really admire mobsters? We don’t know. Besides it would be better to ask: how many of us admire them, and to what degree? Either way, I doubt that we have good survey data on approval ratings for John Gotti. All we know is that mobster movies often sell a lot of tickets. Yet the relation between our actual lives (admiration, desires, behavior) and what we like to watch on screen is fuzzy and inconsistent.

It’s fun to speculate about movies and mobsters,* but without evidence all we have is at best speculation, at worst bullshit.

In a message to me, Maria Konnikova says that there is evidence, including surveys, but that the New Yorker edited that material out of the final version of her article.

* Nine years ago, in what is still one of my favorite posts on this blog, I speculated on the appeal of mafia movies (here). I had the good sense to acknowledge that I was speculating and to point out that our preferences in fantasyland had a complicated relation to our preferences in real life.

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