Showing posts with label Print. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Print. Show all posts

These Truths, These Untruths, These Really Big Numbers

July 21, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

If a number just doesn’t sound right — it’s way too big or way too small — you’d better double-check. That’s the warning sociologist Joel Best has been giving us since 1990, if not before, when he looked at claims that the number of children abducted by strangers annually was 50,000. Way too many.

And now we have distinguished historian Jill Lepore, author of the recent best-selling history of the US These Truths. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, in her article “The Invention of the Police” (here) she says this:

I’m using a screenshot of The New Yorker’s online version only to show that as of this writing, more than a week after its initial publication, this passage remains unchanged. The text reads:

One study suggests that two-thirds of Americans between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four who were treated in emergency rooms suffered from injuries inflicted by police and security guards, about as many people as the number of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles.

This number, two-thirds, does not sound right. I have been in NYC emergency rooms — in the city’s high-crime years and in its low-crime years. Never did it look like two-thirds of the people there had been roughed up by the cops. The study Lepore cites (by Justin Feldman, here ) used data from 2001-2014. In that 14-year period,  683,000 young people (15-34) turned up in emergency rooms after being hit by the police or security guards, roughly 50,000 a year. That’s the numerator.

The denominator is the total number of emergency room visits by this age group. My estimate is about 30 million a year.* Obviously, 50,000 out of 30,000,000 is not two-thirds. It’s less than two-tenths of a percent.

What happened? Isn’t The New Yorker the publication that made “fact check” part of our everyday language?

Louise Perry (here) has an explanation of how Lepore and the fact checkers at The New Yorker misread the numbers and prose in Feldman’s article.

But it’s not clear where Lepore got the ‘two-thirds’ figure from. Possibly she misunderstood a line from from the paper itself, which includes the finding that 61.1% of people injured by police fell into the 15-34 age bracket. Or from the Harvard press release, which reports that: Sixty-four percent of the estimated 683,033 injuries logged between 2001-2014 among persons age 15-34 resulted from an officer hitting a civilian.

That’s the “how.” Perry also thinks she knows the “why”: “political bias.” Liberal, anti-police bias. Of course, it’s impossible to get evidence for this idea. The magazine and the writer have politically liberal views. Maybe the fact-checkers do as well. But it’s impossible to get evidence that their politics caused their misreading of the data.

So as long as we’re speculating without evidence, here’s my explanation (I’m not necessarily rejecting the politics explanation, just maybe adding to it): writing and reading about big numbers. It’s not easy to write up statistics in a way that is unmistakably clear. A reader not familiar with the territory can easily take a wrong turn, especially when that territory takes the shape of large numbers. If I told you that before the current pandemic, emergency rooms in the US saw about 3 million people a year, that might sound reasonable. I mean, three million seems like a really big number. But it’s only one- tenth of the actual number.

I know very little about dinosaurs. If you told me they went extinct 10 million years ago, I would think, Yeah, that’s a long time ago; it sounds about right. If you told me that they went extinct 200 million years ago, I’d have the same reaction. Sounds plausible. But a paleontologist would wonder how I could be taken in by such obvious untruths.

Yes, it’s possible that The New Yorker’s fact-checkers were so eager to stick it to the police that they let an “obvious” mistake slip by.  But it’s also possible that they just didn’t know how to parse these claims about the data, and because some of the numbers were large and others (ED visits) still larger and unknown, they just seemed reasonable.


* This a rough and quick estimate. The average 15-34 population over those years was in the range of 30-35 million. This site  shows rates of ED use by age group. Unfortunately, the age groups are Under 18 and 18-44. So I estimated on the low side.

Tomie de Paola, 1934 - 2020. The Art Lesson

March 31, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I heard Tomie da Paola l speak one summer at the Wellfleet Library on Cape Cod. 

“Who here knows how to draw?” he asked. A few people raised their hands — there’s no dearth of artists on the Cape in the summer — but most of us didn’t. “If you ask that question to a bunch of five-year olds, they all raise their hands,” he said.

His point was not, of course, that as we grow older we lose our ability to draw. What we lose is the ability to find joy in drawing.

That evening in the library, it was obvious from the man himself, even you didn’t know that he had drawn/written hundreds of books, that he never lost that joy.

Quote TK

October 19, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Peter Navarro is an economist who now works in the White House as an adviser on trade. You can find his books in the non-fiction section of the bookstore, though that label may now include an asterisk.

In his 2011 book Death By China, Navarro quotes an expert on China, Ron Vara, on how nasty and dangerous the Chinese are as trading partners: “Only the Chinese can turn a leather sofa into an acid bath, a baby crib into a lethal weapon, and a cellphone battery into heart-piercing shrapnel.”

It’s a great quote. The only problem is that Ron Vara is fictional.  Navarro made him up (the name is an anagram of Navarro). Ron Vara has made appearances in other Navarro books. I haven’t read these, but I would guess the purpose is the same — to include a really strong quote, so strong that for Navarro to acknowledge it as his own would reveal him as a very biased non-fiction writer.

Navarro claims it’s all in good fun, a “whimsical device.” Honest journalists who play by the rules see it as “making stuff up” or more simply “lying.”

But what Navarro did is not all that different from the legitimate journalisitic technique of searching out someone who will give you the quote you want, the quote that expresses your own views but that you can legitimately attribute to someone else. “Quote TK” (quote to come) in the draft of a story means that the writer needs a little more time to find someone who will express a particular opinion. Honest writers may have to go deep into their contact list, but eventually they usually get something usable.

Navarro’s method of making stuff up has great advantages over honest non-fiction writing:
  • It results in quotes that are much sharper and that are guaranteed to express precisely the opinions you want expressed
  •  It’s much less work.
  •  And as the NPR story notes, it’s perfectly compatible with the current occupants of the White House.

Tom Wolfe and the Novelistic Techniques of the New Journalism – Reading Minds and Making Stuff Up

May 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

According to the obit in New York Magazine, Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” published in New York Magazine in June 1970, “will be taught as long as there are journalism schools.” The obit also refers to the ”novelistic techniques of New Journalism.”

I’ve never taken a course in journalism or in writing novels.  But I would think that there is an important difference. A novelist can tell you what someone in the story is thinking and feeling and never be wrong.  After all, it’s the novelist who is creating everything.  If Robert Ludlum tells you that Jason Bourne is thinking something, that’s what Bourne is thinking. By contrast, the journalist can’t just guess or invent what’s going on in a person’s mind. Someone, preferably that person, has to tell them.

Unless the journalist is Tom Wolfe. Apparently one of those “novelistic techniques” is knowing, without anyone reporting it, what people are thinking. Usually, it’s what Mr. Wolfe wants them to be thinking. And what he wants them to be thinking about is themselves – their status and style. A central element of “Radical Chic” is, (again in the words of the NY Mag obit) “rich people acting a little absurd.”

The piece opens with Leonard Bernstein in 1966 (four years before the famous party) awake in the pre-dawn hours sketching out the idea for a concert piece. Wolfe’s source for this is one page in The Private World of Leonard Bernstein (1968), by John Gruen. Gruen’s account is based the notes Bernstein himself jotted down that morning. The piece would involve Bernstein with a guitar, a “Negro” (1966 remember) who speaks to the audience, and finally Bernstein making a very brief anti-war statement. “‘It’s no good,’ says Lenny,” Gruen writes. Lots of artists get ideas that they consider for a while – in this case apparently for a few hours one morning – and then reject. Bernstein never composed the piece.

In Bernstein’s notes the guitar is just a guitar. In “Radical Chic” it becomes “A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordion, that are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ 14-year-olds of Levittown!” I guess that those details are “novelistic,” and the exclamation marks make it more convincing. But basically, Wolfe just made it up.

Wolfe continues with his version of Gruen’s account.

For a moment, sitting there alone in his home in the small hours of the morning, Lenny thought it might just work and he jotted the idea down. Think of the headlines: BERNSTEIN ELECTRIFIES CONCERT AUDIENCE WITH ANTIWAR APPEAL. But then his enthusiasm collapsed. He lost heart.

Wolfe is telling us Lenny’s thoughts – Lenny’s all-caps egotistical fantasies. But neither Gruen nor Lenny mentioned anything like that. Wolfe just novelistically made it up.

Wolfe does his mind-reading act again and again..

The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.

Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong — somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade.

God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events . . . But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status. Deny it if you want to! Nevertheless, it runs through every soul here. [boldface added; italics in the original]

Wolfe uses that phrase, “Deny it if you want to,” four times. The implication is that if you want to know what people were thinking, if you want to fact-check and confirm that their “nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status,” you can’t ask them. They’ll deny it. You just have to take Tom Wolfe’s word for it. Trust me.

A Black Panther official explains the situation of the Panthers who were arrested.

“They’ve had 27 bail hearings since last April . . . see . . .” —But everyone in here loves the sees and the you knows. They are so, somehow . . . black . . . so funky . . . so metrical . . .

How does Wolfe know that “everyone in here” loves these verbal mannerisms and for those reasons? He doesn’t tell us. We just have to take his word for it, as though he were a novelist telling us what his characters are thinking. In fact, in later years, Wolfe did write novels. But in “Radical Chic” he claims to be not a novelist creating fictions but a journalist reporting events.

If only sociologists and ethnographers could get away with this kind of non-fiction. . . and get rich to boot.

(See yesterday’s post for more on Wolfe.)

Tom Wolfe (1931 - 2018) — Class, Status, and Parties

May 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A “traitor to his class” – that’s what wealthier Republicans and conservatives called FDR. Here was a man who came from wealth yet whose policies were more directed at helping the poor and unemployed, even at the expense of the rich.

Tom Wolfe’s most famous work is probably “Radical Chic,” the 25,000-word piece that ran in New York Magazine in June, 1970. It was about “a party for the Black Panthers.” Wolfe too casts a cold eye on wealthy people coming to the aid of people who were on the wrong side of the social system, in this case, twenty-one Black Panthers accused of a variety of offenses including conspiracy to blow up New York department stores, police stations, the New Haven Railroad, and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

Thirteen of the accused had been arrested and bail was set at $100,000, in effect denying them bail. They had been in jail for over a year. Leonard Bernstein had been persuaded to hold a fund-raiser for them in his apartment. Wealthy people, some of them famous, were invited. So were the lawyers and some members of the Black Panther Party.

You’d think that a journalist covering the event would pay extensive attention to the legal side of things – the charges, the evidence, and so on. You’d also think that in reflecting on the article years later in an interview with the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, the journalist would mention, at least in passing, that the eventual trial had lasted eight months (New York’s longest and most expensive ever at the time) and that the jury took only a couple of hours to return not-guilty verdicts on all 156 charges (twelve crimes x thirteen defendants).

You might think that, but if the journalist is Tom Wolfe, you’d think wrong. Wolfe didn’t really care about the legal charges. He didn’t care about the issues of justice or race or politics that the people at Bernstein’s apartment were talking about. What he cared about was Style.  His goal in the article was to mock these rich White people, many of them Jewish, for trying to incorporate elements of Black style. For Wolfe, the gathering – the discussion and donations – was not primarily about justice. It was merely one more attempt by rich people to appear hip. As Wolfe told the Nieman interviewer

This is not a story about politics; it’s a story about status. Particularly the status of very wealthy people who would find it socially correct to have a really notorious group — [. . .] They’ll never be a starker contrast between, to use a fancy word, two sensibilities.

The cover for this issue of New York Magazine captures Wolfe’s message –three wealthy-looking White women (I have no idea who designed their dresses; Wolfe, no doubt, would know) raising their fists in the Black Power salute.

Wolfe is very good at style and status. Nobody does it better. The article is awash in observations of clothes, colors, fabrics, objects.

The Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party has been sitting in a chair between the piano and the wall. He rises up; he has the hardrock look, all right; he is a big tall man with brown skin and an Afro and a goatee and a black turtleneck much like Lenny’s, and he stands up beside the piano, next to Lenny’s million-dollar chatchka flotilla of family photographs. In fact, there is a certain perfection as the first Black Panther rises within a Park Avenue living room to lay the Panthers’ 10-point program on New York Society in the age of Radical Chic. Cox is silhouetted—well, about 19 feet behind him is a white silk shade with an Empire scallop over one of the windows overlooking Park Avenue. Or maybe it isn’t silk, but a Jack Lenor Larsen mercerized cotton, something like that, lustrous but more subtle than silk. The whole image, the white shade and the Negro by the piano silhouetted against it, is framed by a pair of bottle-green velvet curtains, pulled back.

No detail is too trivial.

Lefcourt and Quat [lawyers for the Panthers] start talking, but then, suddenly, before Don Cox can open his mouth, Lenny reaches up from out of the depths of the easy chair and hands him a mint. There it is, rising up on the tips of his fingers, a mint. It is what is known as a puffed mint, an after-dinner mint, of the sort that suddenly appears on the table in little silver Marthinsen bowls, as if deposited by the mint fairy, along with the coffee, but before the ladies leave the room, a mint so small, fragile, angel-white and melt-crazed that you have to pick it up with the papillae of your forefinger and thumb lest it get its thing on a straightaway, namely, one tiny sweet salivary peppermint melt . . . in mid-air, so to speak . . . just so . . . Cox takes the mint and stares at Bernstein with a strange Plexiglas gaze . . . This little man sitting down around his kneecaps with his Groovy gear and love beads on . . . 

You might think that devoting this much attention to a mint – a mint for godssakes – serves mostly as a vehicle for Wolfe to show off his knowledge of merch (Marthinsen bowls) and his prose. But the Nieman interviewer, tells Wolfe. “This is a beautiful thing, the way you puncture the tension with a mint.” Shows you how little I know about journalism.
There’s another problem with Wolfe’s New Journalism – the almost imperceptible shift from the reporter’s observation to the novelist’s omniscience. I hope to say more about that in a later post.

Women’s Magazines — By the Numbers

December 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Women’s magazines love numbers: “328 Fun Hair Ideas,” “25 Best Bags of Spring,” “21 Mind Blowing Sex Moves” – that sort of thing.  They’ve been doing this since long before the Internet age of Buzzfeed and listicles. (I’ve posted about this from time to time, here for example).

I abbreviated that third cover come-on. The full title on the cover, in varying font sizes is: 21 Mind Blowing Sex Moves You’ve Never Tried Before (Introducing the Brazilian “Sweet Treat”). It’s from Cosmopolitan, of course.

(Click on an image for a larger view. But do you really need it?)

Lately Cosmo has gotten more political. At their website yesterday you could find this reaction to the tax bill.

The Cosmo content changes. It’s no longer just hair styles and sex moves. And the photo accompanying the piece is of a smiling Paul Ryan. But in the headlines, they still lead with a number. (Story #3 is “8 Ways Your Relationship Changes After Kids.”)

I guess women just have a natural attraction to math.

Legitimacy in the Headlines

October 19, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How is Donald Trump doing in his campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the presidency? He has been at it a while. His “birther” campaign – begun in 2008 and still alive – was aimed specifically at the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. Most recently, he has been questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election and by implications all presidential elections.

If he is successful, if the US will soon face a crisis of legitimacy, that’s a serious problem. Legitimacy requires the consent of the governed. We agree that the government has the right to levy taxes, punish criminals, enforce contracts, regulate all sorts of activities. . .  The list is potentially endless.

Legitimacy is to the government what authority is to the police officer – the agreement of those being policed that the officer has the right to enforce the law. So when the cop says, “Move to the other side of the street,” we move. Without that agreement, without the authority of the badge, the cop has only the power of the gun. Similarly, a government that does not have legitimacy must rule by sheer power. Such governments, even if they are democratically elected, use the power of the state to lock up their political opponents, to harass or imprison journalists, and generally to ensure compliance.

Trump is obviously not alone in his views about legitimacy.  When I see the posters and websites claiming that Obama is a “tyrant” – one who rules by power rather than by legitimate authority; when I see the Trump supporters chanting “Lock Her Up,” I wonder whether it’s all just good political fun and hyperbole or whether the legitimacy of the US government is really at risk.

This morning, I saw this headline at the Washington Post website (here).

Scary. But the content of the story tells a story that is completely the opposite. The first sentence of the story quotes the Post’s own editorial, which says that Trump, with his claims of rigged elections, “poses an unprecedented threat to the peaceful transition of power." The second sentence evaluates this threat.

Here’s the key evidence. Surveys of voters in 2012 and 2016 show no increase in fears of a rigged election. In fact, on the whole people in 2016 were more confident that their vote would be fairly counted.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The graph on the left shows that even among Republicans, the percent who were “very confident” that their vote would be counted was about the same in 2016 as in 2012. (Technically, one point lower, a difference well within the margin of error.)

However, two findings from the research suggest a qualification to the idea that legitimacy has not been threatened. First, only 45% of the voters are “very confident” that their votes will be counted. That’s less than half. The Post does not say what percent were “somewhat confident” (or whatever the other choices were), and surely these would have pushed the confident tally well above 50%.

Second, fears about rigged elections conform to the “elsewhere effect” – the perception that things may be OK where I am, but in the nation at large, things are bad and getting worse. Perceptions of Congressional representatives, race relations, and marriage follow this pattern (see this previous post). The graph on the left shows that 45% were very confident that their own vote would be counted. In the graph on the right, only 28% were very confident that votes nationwide would get a similarly fair treatment.

These numbers do not seem like a strong vote of confidence (or a strong confidence in voting). Perhaps the best we can say is that if there is any change in the last four years, it is in the direction of legitimacy.

Abstruse Allusion

July 17, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

(A bit of pedantry, and you could find all this out from the Internet. But I couldn’t resist, and besides, what the hell, it’s my blog.)

The letters the Times published today were all about the Tesla.

How many people, I wondered, recognized the reference in the headline? It’s from the title of a 1964 novel, Drive, He Said, by Jeremy Larner. In 1970 it was made into a movie directed by Jack Nicholson. It’s about campus sports, sex, and politics. It has nothing to do with driving.

The title comes from a Robert Creeley poem, which serves as the epigraph for the novel. The poem too, I suspect, is not really about driving.

I Know a Man
By Robert Creeley

As I sd to my  
friend, because I am  
always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his  
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for  
christ’s sake, look  
out where yr going.

Which brings us full circle back to the Tesla. Can you say those last lines to a self-driving car?

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.

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” (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” (when basketball announcers say that a player has  given “the hard foul,” they mean that the player has done something like 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. 

Covers and Cover-ups

August 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The title of Martin Haskell Smith’s new book pretty much tells you what it’s going to be about: Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World. The blurb on the author’s website adds:

Naked at Lunch is equal parts cultural history and gonzo participatory journalism. Coated in multiple layers of high SPF sunblock, Haskell Smith dives into the nudist world today. He publicly disrobes for the first time in Palm Springs, observes the culture of family nudism in a clothing-free Spanish town, and travels to the largest nudist resort in the world, a hedonist’s paradise in the south of France. He reports on San Francisco’s controversial ban on public nudity, participates in a week of naked hiking in the Austrian Alps, and caps off his adventures with a week on the Big Nude Boat, a Caribbean cruise full of nudists.

Note that the author is “Haskell Smith,” not “Smith” as he would be in the US (for example, see this LA Times story).  In American sociological writing, C. Wright Mills is “Mills.” In the UK, he’s “Wright Mills.”

But there’s another interesting cultural difference – the book jacket.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The US edition lets us peer through the letters to see the author – yes, that’s really Smith, or Haskell Smith (his head is in the “A”) – sitting on a beach chair, perhaps poolside on that Caribbean cruise, wearing only his glasses, his laptop atop his lap covering what Brits might call his willie, which in any case would be covered by the white space between the “L” and “U.” 

The UK and Australia editions are even more circumspect.

Michael Bywater in The Literary Review  compares the UK and US covers.

So that's the naked author, with his whacker and his Mac, and this is his book about nudists and what they’re like and what the hell they think they’re doing. So, not unreasonably, the book is categorised as social science. In the USA.

But not here. Here in Britain, there’s no nude author. The cover is whimsical, cartoony: there are little pink blobby people, sunbeds, a swimming pool and a very tanned woman with a poodle and a tent. And here in Britain, the category is travel writing.

And what of Australia? No hint of nudity. Without the title, the cover would be completely misleading. Perhaps the Aussie graphics designers thought that since the title conveyed so much information, they were free to go for an adolescent, Freudian joke.

(Other SocioBlog posts on covers and culture are here and here, and for the messages that covers convey, go here for a post on a child guessing the content of literary classics just from their covers.)

James Salter, 1925-2015

June 20, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Sport and a Pastime
has long been one of my favorite novels. The author, James Salter, died yesterday. 

The novel was published in 1967. I don’t remember when I first read it – maybe in the 1970s. It had me at hello. Here are the opening sentences

September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, the roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps.

Unmistakably Paris. The narrator is in the station and then on a train leaving the station.

Soon we are rushing along the valley of departure, the houses of the suburbs flashing by, ordinary streets, apartments, gardens, walls. The secret life of France into which one cannot penetrate, the life of photograph albums, uncles, names of dogs that have died.

Salter paints with quick brushstrokes, somehow finding the perfect details that convey the entire scene and an idea – that the narrator, an American, can never know this secret but ordinary France.  The names of dogs that have died.

At first, I was a bit hesitant to recommend this book to others, mostly because of the sex. Even the Times obituary is circumspect.

Controversy surrounded “A Sport and a Pastime,” a slender book dense with eroticism about an American expatriate’s affair with a young Frenchwoman. Their lovemaking is described at close range by a third party, a none too reliable narrator, in a story that has been called, among other things, “intensely transgressive.”

Any guesses as to what about the lovemaking was transgressive? OK. It was anal sex – in 1967 still a rarity for serious writers. Only Burroughs in Naked Lunch (1959) and Mailer in An American Dream (1965) come to mind, and they were using it to epater le bourgeois; these were exertions, deliberate attemps to be “transgressive.”  In A Sport and a Pastime, the anal sex is part of the love affair.

Strange that the Times is so prissy nearly three decades after they first decided the AIDS crises had made the phrase “anal sex” fit to print. I long ago abandoned my diffidence about recommending the book because of it.

The narrator presents more of a problem. His identity and his relation to the characters is ambiguous. We can trust him about what he sees out the window of the train. But how can he know what has gone on in the hotel rooms of the lovers (Philip Dean and Anne-Marie)? He makes no secret of his unreliability.

I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.

But I confess, it’s mostly for the prose style that I reread this book.

Images of the towns. Sens. The famous cathedral which is reflected in the splendor of Canterbury itself rises over the icy river, over the still streets. . . . The little shops have grown close around it, cinemas, restaurants. Still, it cannot be touched. Beneath the noon sun the roof, which is typically Burgundian, gleams in the strange design of snakeskin, banded into diamonds, black and green, ocher, red. The sun splashes it like water. The brilliance seems to spread.

Snakeskin! I had looked at those roofs in Burgundy several times, but I had never really seen them.

Whose Anecdote Is This Anyway?

December 22, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston
(This is a revised post. The original version was different in tone.)

How much can we trust the memory of a memoirist?

In Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (now a movie starring Reese Witherspoon), a man she meets on the road tells her a very unusual anecdote. A few days later, she will read that same anecdote in a book.  The echo cannot be coincidence. The anecdote is too special.

According to the jacket flap, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is  “A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike.”

Strayed leaves the trail at times to check back in to civilization or to circumvent stretches of the trail locked in by snow. After one such detour about halfway through her journey, she is hitching back to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). An old Ford Maverick stops to offer a ride – a woman and man in the front seat, another man and a dog in the back. She accepts.

The man sharing the back seat with Strayed is Spider – “his dark hair woven into a thin braid. He wore a black leather vest without a shirt underneath and a red bandanna tied biker-style of the top of his head.”

“What are you doing on the road anyway?” Lou asked from the front seat.

I went into the whole PCT shebang, explaining about the trail and the record snowpack and the complicated way I had to hitchhike to get to Old Station. They listened with respectful, distant curiosity, all three of them lighting up cigarettes as I spoke.

After I was done talking, Spider said, “I’ve got a story for you, Cheryl. I think it’s along the lines of what you’re talking about. I was reading about animals a while back and there was this motherfucking scientist in France back in the thirties or forties or whevever the motherfuck it was and he was trying to get apes to draw these pictures, to make art pictures like the kinds of pictures in serious motherfucking paintings that you see I museums and shit. So the scientist keeps showing the apes these paintings and giving them charcoal pencils to draw with and the one day one of the apes finally draws something but it’s not the art pictures that it draws. What it draws is the bars of its own motherfucking cage. Its own motherfucking cage! Man, that’s the truth ain’t it? I can relate to that and I bet you can too, sister.

“I can,” I said earnestly.

“We can all relate to that, man,” said Dave, and he turned in his seat so he and Spider could do a series of motorcycle blood brother hand jives in the air between them.

Twenty pages later, Strayed is reading a book. Before she started her journey, she mailed packages to herself, addressed to post offices along the Pacific Crest Trail.  The packages contained replenishment of food, supplies, and books.  On the trail, Strayed would tear out and burn the pages as she read them – no sense carrying around the extra weight – and start a new book at the next postal station.

A few days after her ride with Spider, she picks up one such package. “I sat for hours reading the book that had come in my box – Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita – while waiting for my boots to arrive.”

Strayed doesn’t mention it, but at the end of Lolita is an afterword, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” that Nabokov added for the US edition (Lolita had originally been published in France.)  Here, in part, is the third paragraph:

The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris . . . . As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage.

Here is the sequence according to Strayed. Spider tells her the ape-cage/art-bars story. A few days later she reads Lolita, which, though she does not mention it,  contains this same story.  Did she really encounter this anecdote twice? Whose memory is speaking – Spider’s or Nabokov’s?

Spider, despite the “I was reading about animals” intro, doesn’t seem like someone who has read much literature or zoology.  Maybe in writing her memoir fifteen years later, Strayed remembers the ape parable, probably because it so perfectly reflects her state of mind at the time.  In her memory, the story sits in the heat and the mountains, someplace near the Trail. In a hike of three months and 1100 miles, her memory is off by only a few days and a hundred miles.  But that’s enough for her to confuse her sources. She gives the story to Spider and rewrites it in his idiom.

At first I thought that Strayed might be deliberately copying Nabokov, appropriating his remembered throb and translating it into the voice of one of her characters. Maybe she did. But the passage certainly does not seem like an homage to Nabokov or evidence of his influence or inspiration.* Besides, if she had been consciously ripping off the master’s material, wouldn’t she fear that some readers might notice? 

Till now, apparently nobody has.
* I’ve mentioned this problem before (here) in connection with a Kate Walbert story that appeared in the New Yorker.  Lorrie Moore’s 2012 story “Referential” very clearly references Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” (My post on that is here.)

Meta-Op-eds (Phoning It In)

April 25, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s not much of a coincidence, these two columns today from the Times’s regular Friday guys.  Besides, the headline writer may have been doing it deliberately. (Why do they put Brooks on the left of the page and Krugman on the right? That’s just confusing.)

The larger coincidence is that neither of these columns is about Piketty or Capital in the Twenty-First Century. They are the columnists reactions to reactions to the book. Very meta. 

Krugman’s main point is that “conservatives are terrified” and do not have any data to refute Piketty’s thesis about inequality and capital accumulation.  Instead, says Krugman, they resort to name-calling, as though calling Piketty a Marxist meant that we should all ignore everything he said.  (Krugman, to be fair, has written columns and blog posts about the substance of the Piketty book. )

As for Brooks,  he lays down his usual psycho-cultural snark on liberal intellectuals – their envy and resentment.
 It really doesn’t help that you have to spend your days kissing up to the oligarchs and their foundations to finance your research, exhibition or favorite cause. . . .
Well, of course, this book is going to set off a fervor that some have likened to Beatlemania.
A 700-page work of economics and economic history as the equivalent of “Love Me Do.”

The Times pays, I would guess, at least $2500 for these 800-word columns.  And I’m sure that columnists, like all of us, have their off days when they’re too busy or uninspired to write something of substance.  But for my $2.50 on Friday, I’d like more than just a challenging crossword puzzle.  Yes, I know that these are “opinion” pieces, but opinion without evidence doesn’t go very far.  (And please, don’t bother making any comments about Maureen Dowd. I already agree.)

Women’s Magazines – Colors and Numbers

March 29, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

First there was Barbara Stanwyck

And then Kelly LeBrock . . .

. . .  movie history repeating itself, the second time as farce.

According to current evolutionary psychology thinking, the prevalence of women in red is not an accident.  The title of this 2013 article says it all: “Women Use Red in Order to Attract Mates.” Just like Ray Charles said.

I was thinking about this the other day as I walked past the newsstands in Port Authority, and not just because of Philip Cohen’s off-the-cuff research study  lending support. 

(Click on the photo for a larger view. The photo is a composite 
of shots from three different magazine racks. )
The trouble was that on all these magazines in the women’s section, only one of the covers had a lady in red (New You, which is apparently aimed at women with a bit of anxiety about getting older).

The covers also made me think about the idea sometimes put forward by the evol-psych crowd (and sometimes by presidents of Harvard) that women do not have an affinity for math.  Maybe so, but while the women’s magazine racks this month had almost no red, they had a lot of numbers.
  • Seventeen – 328 Fun Hair Ideas
  • More - 12 Rules to Follow and 4 to Skip
  • Style Watch - 728 Spring Looks You’ll Love
  • Lucky - 25 Best Bags of Spring
  • Bazaar – 437 New Looks for Now
  • Elle - 300 Instant Outfit Ideas,
  •     80+ Tips from the World’s Top Makeup, Hair, & Skin Pros
  •     the 14 Books Every Woman Must Read
  • Cosmopolitan – 168 Ways to Kick More Ass
  • Teen Vogue – 273 Looks at Any Price
  • Oprah - 20 Questions Every Woman Should Ask Herself Today!
  • In Style - 378 Amazing Spring Accessories
  • Vogue - 648 pages of Spring Fashion
  • Glamour - 99 Best Bags & Shoes Now
  • Cosmopolitan Latina - 87 Power Moves
  • New You – 250+ Springtime beauty solutions, sexy workouts & dietary musts
I’ve commented on this years ago (here and here). Back then, it was not unusual for a magazine to have more than one number on the cover.  The curious thing is that numbers themselves seem to be a fashion mag fashion.  They go in and out of style.  For a while, numbers almost completely disappeared from the covers of women’s magazines.  But at least for Spring 2014, the numbers are back. 

If the SocioBlog had a cover, it might say

14 Magazines for Spring with Numbers on the Cover

Location, Location, Location

January 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a much more important story than Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge. But it’s the Bridge that’s getting far more attention in the media. 

Anne Marie Cox has a good piece in the Guardian (here) about “how it came to be that Bridgegate continues to attract punditry while West Virginia only generates the kind of sympathetic-if-distant coverage we usually grant far-off and not too devastating natural disasters.”
In West Virginia, there are 300,000 people without useable water, and an unknown number who may fall ill because the warning to avoid the tainted supply came seven hours after the leak was discovered – and perhaps weeks after it happened. (Neighbors of the plant have told reporters they detected the chemical’s odor in December.)
Surely, that’s more important than four days of traffic jams, which, truth be told, are hardly a strange and new horror for New York and New Jersey drivers.

Cox has several explanations for the disproportionate weight given to the Christie story. Not only might Christie be president in a couple of years, but he’s known. He’s a political celebrity.* And for some reason, stories about the personal deeds and misdeeds of celebrities are newsworthy. Apparently we prefer a story about personalities rather than about policy (especially policy that involves science, especially environmental science). 

Cox lists other reasons, but the one I think is most telling is geography.**
It is taking place in the literal backyard of most national political reporters. It has very little to do with policy, or numbers, or science.
In the old days – with no satellite transmission, with no Internet –  stories from New York, Washington, and perhaps a few other places dominated the news because that’s where the news business was located. Stories from other places were more expensive to produce and transmit.  Film would have to be flown from the hinterlands to production studios in New York. 

Today, remote stories do not run up costs. And in many ways the chemical spill should make for better news – the visuals are potential more striking, the potential interviews with the plain folks who are affected, the corporate baddies (it doesn’t get much better than “Freedom Industries”), the political influence, etc.

But it’s not just the cost. The sophisticated, cosmopolitan people who bring us the news turn out to be just as provincial in their own way as are the rubes they tacitly disdain.  If the 4-methylcyclohexane-methanol had been polluting the Hudson or the Potomac, it would have been a national story.  As it is, the unstated message in the media coverage is, “Forget it; it’s only West Virginia.”

* Christie’s celebrity status is not an accident. One of the nuggets that the investigation has unearthed is that in choosing an ad campaign for the state to show its miraculous post-Sandy recovery, Christie chose a $4.7 million ad campaign over one that cost about half that much.  The pricier PR job Christie chose gave much greater prominence to Christie himself.

** Social scientists and media experts who know more than I do about how news is made must have written about this, but I have not come across any posts on these two stories.

Is That a Thing?

October 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Sunday, both New York tabloids put the same story on page one – the stabbing death of a woman and four children in their apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Early word from the police was that “it’s looking a domestic violence case.” Apparently the killer knew the victims and may have been a relative. 

What caught my attention was the “related” story that the Daily News linked to on its website version of the story. What kind of story might be related? A story about the family? about difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants or conflicts within an immigrant community? about mental illness and violence? about ethnic and demographic changes in Sunset Park?  No. None of the above.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The story the Daily News chose as “related” concerns the “Green Gang goon who was caught on video slugging a female New England Patriots fan in the face after the Jets’ upset victory” a week earlier. It turns out that in a fight twenty years ago, when he was 17, he fatally stabbed another kid.  He served three years. 

How are these two stories related? There is no connection between the two killers or their victims. The incidents are separated by two decades.  The motives and circumstances are entirely different.  If the Jets fan had not been caught on camera punching the female Patriots fan, no journalist following the Sunday killing would have dug up information on this crime of twenty years ago in an attempt to elaborate on the Sunset Park killings.  Knowing about that “related” crime gives us no better understanding of Sunday’s stabbing. 

Instead, the two stories are related by a common theme – they are both about killing where the weapon is a knife.  The Daily News seems to be taking a page from Amazon’s marketing strategy. “Readers who liked this story also liked . . .”  or Netflix recommendations. (I wonder what the stabbing-death-story demographic is.)  Television news often groups stories thematically. A story about a commercial arson in one part of town will be followed by a story about an accidental fire in a house in a distant neighborhood. The circumstances, location, and causes of the two fires are completely different, and if the big fire had not occurred, that house fire might not have been newsworthy.  But that night, it fit with the fire theme.

Mark Fishman wrote about this thematic organization of TV news in his 1978 article “Crime Waves as Ideology.”  We’re so used to it that when we watch the local news at eleven, we barely notice it.  Now, thanks to hyperlinks, online news can do the same thematic grouping.  A possible consequence that Fishman pointed out is that the news directors can unwittingly create media crime waves – sudden increases in the number of stories while the the actual number of crimes remains unchanged.  Once the theme is established, it’s just a matter of combing the city or the entire country for incidents that fit.

Here is another screen from the Daily News website.

A stabbing at the University of Indiana. The related stories are a stabbing death of a teacher in Long Beach, California and of a teacher in a Texas high school.

So, students stabbing people at schools – is that a thing? Probably not, but it is a news theme.

Fed Lines and Headlines

September 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Fed has been optimistic about the economy and has been hinting that it might scale back its aggressive bond-buying program.  But the jobs report on Friday was not encouraging – an estimated 169,000 jobs added. The really bad news was the shrinking of the labor force.  Apparently a lot of people are giving up the search for a job. 

Did the new data on jobs make the Fed reconsider its plans?  It depends on which  headline you read – the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s a larger version of the Times headline:

Is the Fed undeterred, or have its plans been muddied?  Once you get past the headlines, the stories say pretty much the same thing.  Four sentences after that headline about “muddied” plans, the WSJ said, “Friday’s jobs data did little to move the needle in either direction.”  Which is pretty much agreeing with the Times that the jobs report did not “deter” the Fed.

Reporting the News as You’d Like It to Be

August 31, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The news media are supposed to report the news – things that actually happen, not things they would like to happen. That requirement – being factual – can be pesky, but it’s easily sidestepped. One effective head-fake is to put a statement in the form of a question. The question headline, a staple of supermarket tabloids, has a long history going back at least to the gossip columns of newspaper days.

In 2006, Jon Stewart skewered FoxNews’s Neil Cavuto for his extensive use of this technique. (The Daily Show clip is here).

But Fox doesn’t need to resort to the statement-as-question.  As long as it can find somebody somewhere to speculate, it can report crazy stuff as though it were factual news.  It’s not the Fox newsreaders or editors who are saying these things; it’s “some” people. 

I don’t know if there is any research on the effect of these techniques.  Maybe Fox viewers are more likely to ignore and forget these doubtful and hedged versions of “information.”  But I doubt it.  As the research by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler*  has shown, ideas, even false once, are remarkably resilient.  Corrections of false statements don’t do much to change perceptions and can even have the reverse of effect –  strengthening people’s belief in the original untruth. 

A blogpost by Nyhan with a link to news coverage and academic papers is here.