Detective Can

December 31, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The NYPD doesn’t record all the crimes that victims report.  That’s the shocking news on the front page of this morning’s Times (here).

A bit of history.  In 1950, the number of burglaries in New York jumped by 1400% 1300%.  The entire increase was attributable to one man, and he wasn’t a burglar.  He was the chief of police.  We’re not talking here about actual  burglaries, of course, just burglaries recorded by the police.

Prior to 1949, the policy on most reported burglaries was “canning.”  The victim would report the crime, the police would listen, and then “refer the case to Lieutenant Can.”  For reasons I cannot remember, the chief of police issued an order ending, or greatly reducing, that policy. As a result, the next year, New York had fifteen fourteen times as many burglaries.  (Something similar happened with robberies in Chicago in the 1980s thanks to pressure form the FBI, which gathers statistics for the Uniform Crime Reports.)

What if a similar directive were issued today?  The official numbers will rise, but everyone will know that this reflects a change in policy, not a change in safety. The trouble is that in the long run, there’s a sort of law of thermodynamics entropy eroding full reporting.  Police reap no rewards for reporting more crime.  Precincts or cities that report more crime may feel the wrath of the brass, the media, or the citizens.  Rewards flow to areas with less crime, and NYPD chiefs will compare precinct with precinct, and they will compare this month with last month.  Under these conditions, precinct commanders feel pressure to have lower crime numbers, and if the criminals and victims won’t cooperate in that effort, theres always Detective Can or his current equivalent.

Honesty and accuracy are nice in principle, but Compstat is what matters.

Technology – Old and New

December 31, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Ddulite is the opposite of a Luddite.  According to Mark Palko, who coined the term recently, a Ddulite is someone with a “preference for higher tech solutions even in cases where lower tech alternatives have greater and more appropriate functionality.”   

Andrew Gelman can see the Ddulite logic though he himself doesn’t even have a cellphone. 
 It can make sense to switch early (before the new technology actually performs better than the old) to get the benefits of being familiar with the new technology once it does take off. 
David Pogue, who writes the tech column for the Times, is probably a Ddulite.  He gives one of his year-end Pogie awards  to a projector, but not because it projects well – all projectors project – but for this beauty part:
The Pogie award-winning feature here, though, is a customizable start-up screen. You can add . . . an “if found, please call” message . . . . When the projector turns on, this start-up message is the first thing that appears.

Frankly, an “If found, please call” start-up message should be available on every cellphone, music player, tablet, laptop and remote control.

For years now, I have installed my own “If Found” technology on my cellphone, my MP3 player, my camera, and my laptop.  Admittedly, it’s old technology, but it works remarkably well.

I rarely send anything via snail mail.  But thanks to various charities (especially Amnesty International for some reason),  I have hundreds of these address labels.  I finally found a use for four of them.

I doubt that I’m in line for a Pogie

A Teachable Moment

December 29, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross posted at Sociological Images)

This ad illustrates some sociological idea, something I could use in class. I’m just not sure what it is.  (You may have already seen it. It’s been around on the Internet for a few months.)

Yes, it’s a beer commercial, not a documentary, not “reality.”  But the couples are real and unscripted – like the victims in a “Candid Camera” bit (or the subjects in some social psychology experiments).  Real and unscripted too is our reaction as viewers.  I don’t know about you, but after the ad was over, I realized that I had shared something of the couples’ anxiety at being different and hence excluded.  The bikers are neutral, maybe they are even silently hostile, so when they suddenly became accepting, my sense of relief was palpable.  I laughed out loud. 

So sociological point one is that we are social animals.  Excluded we feel fear, accepted and included we feel comfort.  Point two is that laughter is social.  Here (and in many other situations) it’s a kind of tension-meter.  There ad had no joke that I was laughing at.  It was just a release from tension.  No tension, no laughter.

The ad also illustrates “definition of the situation.”  The rigged set-up shatters the couples’ standard definition of going to the movies. They are anxious not just because they are different but because they nave no workable definition and therefore no clear sense of what to do. 

Finally, the ad raises the issue of stereotypes.  Stereotypes may actually have some general statistical accuracy.  The trouble is that the stereotype converts a statistical tendency to absolute certainty.  We react as though we expect all members of the stereotype to be that way all the time or most of the time.  Is it reasonable when you see 148 bikers to be fearful even to the point of leaving (I think some of the couples didn’t take the available seats)?  You don’t need to have read Hunter S. Thompson  to know there is some truth in the image of bikers as above the mean on violence.  But in a theater where you find them quietly awaiting the movie? 

What other sociological ideas does the ad suggest?

If You’re Going to Use Anecdotal Data, At Least Choose the Right Anecdotes

December 26, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

For instance isn’t proof.  So goes the old saying (Yiddish? Navaho? Confucian?).

Every semester in every course, I tell students that although anecdotal data can be useful for illustrating a general truth, a few selected cases don’t prove anything.  So the argumentum ex anecdotum (pardon my made-up Latin) bothers me, especially when it comes from a social scientist.

Here’s a letter in today’s Times.
Ian Ayres and Aaron S. Edlin write, “It would be bad for our democracy if 1 percenters started making 40 or 50 times as much as the median American.”

Are Bill and Melinda Gates a great threat to democracy? Jeff Bezos? Oprah Winfrey? Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg? I fail to see how those who have amassed great fortunes in America threaten American democracy.

They do not plot coups or finance fascist militias. They do, however, give lots of money to wonderful charitable and educational organizations.

I think much of the animus toward the enormous success of such people is rooted in jealousy. “It’s not right that some people should make so much more money than I do” is the spiteful feeling behind much of the opposition to the 1 percenters.

Russ Nieli
Princeton, N.J., Dec. 20, 2011
The writer is a lecturer in the politics department at Princeton.

Not only does Princeton Lecturer Nieli rely solely on anecdotal data, but at least two of the four people he mentions clearly illustrate the point he is denying -  that with great wealth comes the potential for great political power.  Does anyone think that Michael Bloomberg, whatever his skills in politics, would have become mayor if his income were that of a lecturer at Princeton?   If money really makes no difference in politics, if we all had equal power based only on our one vote per person, why do politicians spend so much time raising so much money?

Or take the recent legislation in California to apply the state sales tax to Internet sales.  It was pretty clear that one citizen of the state of Washington, Jeff Bezos, had vastly more influence on the legislation than did any citizen of California.  It’s also clear that Mr. Bezos was lobbying not for what was best for the people of the Golden State but what was best for Amazon.

I won’t bother to comment on Lecturer Nieli’s professional assessment of the psychological motivations (jealousy, spite) of those who oppose great inequality.
Perhaps Mr. Nieli lectures to his Princeton students that huge disparities in citizens’ power are true to the spirit of democracy.  But then again, I’ve never known Princeton to be careful in its choice of lecturers.

Jay Livingston was a lecturer in the psychology department at Princeton.  (True fact.)