Drug Pushers

January 7, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m in Florida visiting my mother. When I go to make out a shopping list, I notice that every pad of paper, every post-it, every pen, carries the logo and name of some drug – bounty from visits to doctors.

But that will all stop now. The drug companies aren’t admitting that the freebies they lavish on doctors have tainted the practice of medicine. But even though there’s nothing wrong with treating doctors to these gewgaws or the sandwiches for the office staff and nice dinners for the docs, Big Pharma has vowed to stop it.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's new rules for interacting with health care professionals:
• No branded pens, pads, mugs or other “leave behinds”
• No tickets to theaters or sporting events.
• No “dine and dash” meals dropped off in doctor's offices.
• No expensive dinners out at restaurants.

Big deal. I doubt that the mugs and pens were swinging much weight. These are doctors, after all. They’re not going to toss you a Manhattan-worth of drug sales for $24 worth of trinkets. No, the real problem is the money for speeches and “research.” Not only are these fees much heftier. More important, the speeches and research don’t look like corporate PR. They keep the large hand of the drug company hidden behind the curtain. There’s no sales rep pushing a product. Instead, it’s one doctor informing other doctors, colleague to colleague.

This money from Big Pharma corrupts the practice of medicine, and it corrupts research. Take a look at the article by Marcia Angell in the current New York Review of Books, (ungated, at least for now, here). Here’s the money quote.
It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

January 5, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Men – the gang that can’t shoot straight.

Long ago, I blogged (here) about public men’s rooms, particularly the mess caused by men peeing outside the box. Here was the stuff of culture. The American approach to unwanted behavior is typically to define it as sin and punish it, and I suggested (only half facetiously) that our first impulse would be to try to curb splashing by levying heavy fines.

The Dutch by contrast have a less morally absolutist approach. They see unwanted behavior as a problem to be solved. Instead of posting signs threatening punishment, they gave men a target to shoot at – a fly painted on the porcelain – and spillage decreased by 80%.

But American culture, in addition to its moralism, also has a healthy streak of pragmatism – a practical concern with results. Nothing succeeds like success, and apparently news of the effective insect has crossed the Atlantic.

I was at JFK Airport last night (the teenager formerly in residence was himself about to cross the Atlantic), and in the men’s room, every urinal still had its central fly. I had noticed something similar at the Newark airport last summer, though with a slight variation. JFK gives shooters a realistic fly to aim at. Newark uses a cartoon-like bee (a realistic bee might might trigger a counterproductive startle and flinch).

(For a larger picture, click on the image.)

No doubt, other painted-on insects are coming soon to an airport urinal near you.

UPDATE, January 6. The target idea hasn't caught on everywhere. I'm blogging this from the new Jet Blue terminal at JFK, where the urinals have no small creatures in them, real or painted.

The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money

January 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s NFL playoff season, and here at the Socioblog, that means it must be time for The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money.

The idea behind the “wisdom of crowds” is that the average guess or prediction of a large number of people will be more accurate than that of a few experts (“the smart money”). I looked at these principles two years ago, in a series of posts (here, here, and here).

Today’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Arizona Cardinals seems to pit the public against the insiders. The opening line had the Falcons as 3-point favorites, and the public money came in on the Falcons. Normally, the bookmakers would try to balance their books and get an equal amount of money on both sides. To encourage more people to bet on the Cardinals and discourage Falcon bets, they would raise the point spread. Falcon backers might think twice if they had to give up 3 ½ or 4 points rather than 3.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the line went down. On Friday, Cardinal bettors were getting only 1 ½ or 1 point. Apparently, in addition to the public money coming in mostly on the Falcons, the bookies also got “smart” money on the Cards. The oddsmakers were responding not to the amount of money but to the source. If the smart money was on the Cardinals, they would lower the line to encourage the public to bet on Atlanta.

So today’s game offers a clear choice. If you believe in the wisdom of crowds, you’ll follow the public and bet the Falcons and be happy that you have to give up only a point or so. If you think the smart money is smart, you’ll bet the Cardinals. (But remember, the smart money bet early and got the Cards plus 3 points; you might only get one, or none. Even so, my money’s on the Cards.)

UPDATE Saturday Evening.
The money must have kept coming in on the Cardinals, because by game time they were favored by as much as 2 ½ points. The Cardinals won the game 30-24. The smart money got it right.

Sociology Blogger Scoops The New York Times

January 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Back in 2008, I wrote about the New York Parking Violations Bureau – particularly their willingness to haggle. Get a ticket and don’t like the high number on the fine, no problem. They’ll offer you a one-third discount. (The blog post is here).

Today, the New York Times finally breaks the story on page one, above the fold.