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The Depravity Scale

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Michael Welner has this website for his proposed Depravity Scale, intended to be an objective method of saying which crimes are worse than others.  I am generally in favor of objectifying sentencing judgments, but the Supreme Court seems bent in the other direction.  They threw out mandatory capital sentencing many years ago.  They threw out the mandatory Federal Sentencing Guidelines in Booker.

Anyway, Welner invites the public to participate in saying what is more depraved than what.  I am skeptical of the method here.  As I have noted before, self-selection is one of the worst ways to select participants for a study.  The FAQ page notes:

We collect demographic and background information to ensure balanced representation of different viewpoints, ages, and origin of our study participants and to make sure that the Depravity Standard items, when later finalized for inclusion, enjoy consensus support for inclusion that cuts across all imaginable demographics.
But just because a sample is representative on all the usual demographic criteria does not mean that it is representative of the population on opinions about heinousness.  Demographic groups are not homogenous, and selection bias is still a problem even after correcting for demographics.  A self-selected internet survey is going to be weighted toward the opinions of people active on the internet.  A self-selected survey about crime is going to be weighted toward the opinions of people intensely interested in crime.  A self-selected survey depending on links from blogs will be weighted toward the opinions of the readership of those blogs.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

Research such as this is probably a step in the right direction, but we want to be careful not to give it too much weight and to always keep in mind its limitations.

7 Comments

Interesting to see this research discussed here. I took this survey years ago and did not locate it through a blog. While I am active on the internet, as I would argue most of the population is these days, I wasn't always into crime and legal news, but managed to stumble on the survey anyway. This survey and it's blog were one of the first sites that got me into the area. The research is proposed as a new sentencing guideline for depraved crimes - I'm ok with that, who isn't?

I should also have mentioned that they are actively soliciting blogs to link to the page. I received the solicitation today.

In case the original post wasn't clear enough, I am in favor of the general concept, but I want to raise the caution flag that we need to be skeptical of methodology.

I don't generally "out" anonymous commenters, but in this case I think I need to disclose that Anonymous923 is affiliated with the sponsor of the research.

The scale is long on promises and short on psychometrics. It's an interesting idea that lacks serious efforts.

As an academic, I have been a firm believer in this research for some time and what it can do for legal policy. I know that it is in its final stages of data collection. To the writer, it is unclear to me why you posted a blog on research you are offended by and clearly have issues with. From the comments it is clear the research is quite misunderstood, by the writer and its commenters. I also don't see the problem with soliciting blogs for participation in an online survey on depravity. If they are trying to complete data collection and want to ensure the most representative sample possible, what better way to reach the Internet community than through a blog? Also, how can you know that this is the only method they are using to reach out to people - you seem too easy to jump to conclusions. Dr. Michael Welner, a fellow academic and colleague is respected in his community and his research should be represented in the proper manner.

I don't have a problem with Anonymous923 being affiliated with the research. They obviously found out about it, liked it, and found some way to get involved. Good for Anonmous for being proactive in something they believe in.

I think as an author, Kent, you should be entitled to your opinions and be able to defend them, and you should afford others the same opportunioty; even if they wish to stay anonymous about their affiliation.

"To the writer, it is unclear to me why you posted a blog on research you are offended by and clearly have issues with."

My, how touchy. A caution about a potential methodology problem hardly constitutes being "offended." Did you not read the second sentence or the last sentence of the original post? I am in favor of these objectifying efforts overall. How many times do I have to say that?

Raising these kinds of issues is what scholarly discussion is all about. If there are substantive answers to the issues I have raised, fine, let's hear them. But hypersensitivity to such mild criticism is itself a warning flag.

"I don't have a problem with Anonymous923 being affiliated with the research."

Nor do I, but such affiliations should be disclosed when one comments publicly about the research.

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