Recently in Studies Category

CalNonCalCrimeChanges2014_2015.gifAs noted previously on this blog, the FBI recently announced the Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report covering the first half of 2015 for cities over 100,000.  I have totaled the crime counts for violent and property crimes for 2014 and 2015 and computed the percent changes for California cities versus cities in other states.  Click on the graph for a larger view.

California has (1) court orders overriding state law to release prisoners because of overcrowded conditions caused by the Legislature's failure to build enough prison space, (2) the "realignment" program moving prisoners from state prison to overcrowded county jails where they are either released or push out prisoners who would otherwise be in jail, and (3) Proposition 47, which reduced many felonies to misdemeanors.  Between these measures, the state has seriously softened its approach to crime and put many criminals on the street who would otherwise be in custody.  Although other states are taking more modest measures to reduce prison populations, nowhere else do we see this headlong rush to push criminals out the gates.  One would expect, then, that California would have much worse results than other states, and that is exactly what we see.

What is Governor Brown's plan?  Push even more criminals onto the streets. 

Murders Up 6.2%, FBI Data Show

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Official crime statistics are slow to confirm what common sense tells us is likely to happen and what anecdotal evidence tells us is happening.  There is a lag between cause and effect and another lag between effect and the official statistics.  But eventually the facts, "stubborn things," do come in.

Devlin Barrett has this article in the WSJ, with the above headline in the print version (slightly different online).

Murders rose 6.2% in the first half of 2015, according to preliminary crime data released Tuesday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, figures that are likely to further fuel the current political debates about crime, policing and sentencing.

Violent crime overall increased 1.7%, the FBI found, while property crimes decreased 4.2%, compared with the first six months of 2014. Police chiefs from around the country had warned about an apparent surge in recent months.
 

Notes on Crime Statistics

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Carl Bialik has this post at 538 Blog on crime statistics and why they can be confusing and manipulated.  It's a useful post on the technical aspects, but the "spin" aspect of it is annoying.  Bialik tries to soft-pedal the increase in homicides.  A 14% jump in a single year is huge.

Bialik says, "For what it's worth, homicides are up -- though probably by less than what you've read."  What's with the "probably"?  Is he implying that most news media have exaggerated the increase?  From what I have read, most media are fully complicit in the soft-peddling.

"So-called justifiable homicides don't count toward the FBI definition."  So-called?  They are called that because they are that.  Would you point at an oak tree and say it is a "so-called oak"?

Bialik discusses the problem of crimes being defined differently in different jurisdictions, which is indeed a huge problem in crime statistics.  (It's even worse when you go international.)  He talks about the NYPD's reporting of "shootings" and the FBI's UCR category of "aggravated assault."  He quotes a criminologist saying (correctly), the latter is more deserving of confidence.  Then he tosses in, "Unfortunately, the FBI doesn't separate assaults by firearm from other assaults for individual cities in the data it reports."  Why unfortunate?  If you need to choose between classifying assaults by harm caused and classifying them by weapon used, it seems to me that harm caused is by far the more important.  Ideally, you could classify them both ways, but resources limit what you can do, so the ideal is rarely achieved.
Here's a follow-up on my Boxing Day post.  That big city murder increase dismissed as a mere 11% in a single year in the Brennan Center's preliminary figures turns out to be 14.6% in the final figures, according to this press release.  That is nearly one in seven.  And what could cause this?

The preliminary report examined five cities with particularly high murder rates -- Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and St. Louis -- and found these cities also had significantly lower incomes, higher poverty rates, higher unemployment, and falling populations than the national average.
"There are none so blind as those who will not see."  These are also cities where the police are under severe attack.

Simultaneous v. Sequential Lineups

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One thing we know from studying studies is that you should not make radical changes based on a single study but rather wait for the result to be confirmed by other studies.  You don't know how "robust" a result is until an issue has been studied multiple ways by multiple researchers.  How many times would you have stopped and restarted drinking coffee if you went with every study that came along?

A while back there was some research that indicated that sequential lineups -- where the witness looks at suspects or pictures one at a time -- were far better than simultaneous ones where the witness looks at a group at once.  There was a rush to codify this preference into rigid requirements.  Well, that may not be right.  Bradley Fikes reports in the San Diego Union Tribune on a study indicating, among other things "simultaneous lineups were, if anything, diagnostically superior to sequential lineups. These results suggest that recent reforms in the legal system, which were based on the results of older research, may need to be reevaluated."

Another important finding is that the witness's confidence at the first observation is an important indication of accuracy, much more so than the witness's demeanor at trial that juries must usually go on.
The North Carolina Supreme Court has sent back to the trial court the cases on that state's ill-conceived, misnamed, and since repealed "Racial Justice Act."  The purpose of that act is to defeat rather than promote justice, and it allows murderers to overturn their sentences based on the kind of statistics-based arguments rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in McCleskey v. Kemp.  (See my law review article for background on the racial statistics controversy.)

Jacob Gershman has this article in the WSJ.

The state supreme court vacated the decisions in favor of the murderers, but it did so on the narrow ground that the trial judge did not allow the prosecution sufficient time to gather evidence to rebut a large study submitted to support the claim.  That means the case goes on. 
WaPo fact checker Michelle Ye Hee Lee had this article Thursday on President Obama's various statements after mass shootings, which are not fully consistent with each other or with the facts.  The article also has a cautionary nugget about what "experts say" and what "studies show."

Mr. Obama gets the maximum Four Pinocchios (reserved for "whoppers") for his December 1 statement in Paris, "I say this every time we've got one of these mass shootings: This just doesn't happen in other countries."  Wow.

The President's other, more nuanced statements about the relative frequency of such incidents get the milder Two Pinocchio rating ("significant omissions and/or exaggerations").  To check the facts, Ms. Lee consults experts Adam Lankford and John Lott and gets very different answers.

Astute readers might notice how Lankford and Lott both compared the United States to grouped European countries, but their conclusions are vastly different. Lott says the rate is about the same, while Lankford says the rate is five times higher in the United States. How is this possible? The researchers are looking at different sets of years and different sets of countries. (Lott looked at Europe as a whole; Lankford at the European Union.) Lott uses a broader measure of mass shootings than Lankford does. Lankford looks at the number of shooters; Lott uses fatalities and shooting incidents. This is an example of how the data and definition can be adjusted to show different findings about mass shootings, even using a per capita rate.
Lots and lots of choices have to be made in setting up a study, many seemingly benign in themselves.  If a person wants to reach a particular result, it is easy as pie to run the numbers 16 different ways, pick the way that best supports your agenda, and throw the others in the trash.

This is why the viewpoint one-sidedness of American academia and the well-funded nonprofits is so very dangerous.  The truth comes out much more clearly when there are people on both sides doing these kinds of studies, but academic conservatives are an endangered species, and those who do "come out" are targeted by neo-McCarthyists determined to achieve ideological purity.

Be very, very skeptical about what "studies show" and "experts say."  

Can DNA Testing Be Too Sensitive?

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Forensic DNA testing has gotten better and better over the years, giving us definitive answers from samples that previously would have been too small or too degraded.

Generally, that has been a good thing.  For example, the "wrongly executed" Roger Coleman and the "exonerated" Timothy Hennis were both proved guilty by conclusive DNA matches after the technology improved.

However, DNA testing is now getting so sensitive that it can pick up a person's DNA from a place he has never been or an object he has never touched by transfer from someone else.  Ben Knight has this article at Yahoo News.

The problem, of course, is not in the science but in the interpretation.  The answer to the rhetorical question of the caption is no.  DNA testing cannot be too sensitive, but the results of ultrasensitive tests must be interpreted with great caution.

"Noble-Cause Corruption"

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Catching up a bit, this article by Paige St. John in the LA Times is a couple weeks old now and not on topic, but it introduces an important term to express a form of deceit that I have seen many times but did not have a term for.

Cal. Gov. Jerry Brown last month tied the rash of destructive fires to carbon emissions.  One small problem, say the scientists.  There is no scientific basis for that connection.

University of Colorado climate change specialist Roger Pielke said Brown is engaging in "noble-cause corruption."

Pielke said it is easier to make a political case for change using immediate and local threats, rather than those on a global scale, especially given the subtleties of climate change research, which features probabilities subject to wide margins of error and contradiction by other findings.

"That is the nature of politics," Pielke said, "but sometimes the science really has to matter."
Sometimes?

Tweet of the Day

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From Pat Sajak:  "Studies show 92% of stats are manipulated to make political or social points, but if repeated, are believed by 96%."

Wanted: Decent Crime Stats

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Devlin Barrett has an article in the WSJ with the above headline in the printed paper. The online version, as of this writing, is headlined "Inadequate Data Hampers Law Enforcement in Fight Against Rising Crime."  I preferred the original.

As law-enforcement officials struggle to cope with a sudden, unexplained rise in violent crime in many cities, they find themselves hampered by an outdated system for gathering national crime data that leaves them blind on such basic questions as how many murders happened last month.
The article notes two deficiencies -- the long lag between crime and the official statistics and an undercount due to counting only the most serious crime in each incident.

Another serious deficiency with official crime counts is that they are only "crimes known to the police."  A crime committed but not reported does not show up in the official "crime rate."

This deficiency is particularly serious because there may be a toxic interaction between criminal justice policies and the statistics we use to measure the results, as SF Chron columnist Debra Saunders noted last week.

Crime Fell Slightly in 2014, FBI Says

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Devlin Barrett has this article with the above headline in the WSJ.

Violent crime fell slightly in the U.S. last year, according to data released Monday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, although big-city police chiefs recently warned that the number of killings this year appears to be rising.

According to the FBI, the number of violent crimes fell 0.2% in 2014 compared with the previous year. Property crimes decreased by 4.3%, according to the data.

Last month, the Major Cities Chiefs Association held a meeting in Washington to discuss a spike in killings this summer. Some law-enforcement officials fear that trend may signal an end to two decades of falling crime rates.

Police made more than 11 million arrests in 2014, and about 73% of those arrested were male.

Murder and manslaughters decreased 0.5% to 13,472, according to the FBI estimates, while robberies fell 5.6%. Rape and aggravated assaults increased about 2%, the agency said.

There are multiple theories for the long decline in crime that began in the early 1990s. Some law-enforcement officials cite stricter enforcement of quality-of-life crimes, while others cite increased incarceration or improved tactics and technology.


Most people are familiar with the issue of false recovered memories that plagued the psychological profession back in the 1980s and 1990s.  The idea that a psychologist could elicit memories of abuse that the patient was not even aware existed led to some really awful miscarriages of justice thanks to that junk science.  Now comes a new study from Psychological Science:

Mindfulness Meditation Linked to False Memory Recall

The study suggests individuals who engage in mindfulness meditation may have less accurate memories than those who do not take part in the practice.

"This is especially interesting given that previous research has primarily focused on the beneficial aspects of mindfulness training and mindfulness-based interventions," notes first author Brent M. Wilson, of the Department of Psychology at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD).

Mindfulness meditation involves the act of eliminating distracting or negative thoughts, allowing intense awareness of one's senses and feelings.


The study (subscription required): "Increased False-Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation."


Not So Strong After All

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Today's New York Times reports on a new study questioning the results of many headline-grabbing psychological studies. The authors report that more than half of the studies they examined could not be replicated to the same effect as the original studies.  As the article mentions:

The new analysis, called the Reproducibility Project and posted Thursday by Science, found no evidence of fraud or that any original study was definitively false. Rather, it concluded that the evidence for most published findings was not nearly as strong as originally claimed.

"Less than half -- even lower than I thought," said Dr. John Ioannidis, a director of Stanford University's Meta-Research Innovation Center, who once estimated that about half of published results across medicine were inflated or wrong. Dr. Ioannidis said the problem was hardly confined to psychology and could be worse in other fields, including cell biology, economics, neuroscience, clinical medicine, and animal research.

This is hardly surprising news to anyone in the field who's been paying attention but it's good news that it's getting some widespread attention.  There is an epidemic of Overclaim Syndrome in many parts of psychology that desperately needs the antidote of modesty.  

Justice Breyer's Dubious Authorities

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The following is a guest post by Connecticut Senior Assistant State's Attorney Harry Weller, commenting on Justice Breyer's dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross on Monday. The Connecticut Superior Court decision referred to is In re Death Penalty Disparity Claims (Oct. 11, 2013), previously noted in this post.   As always, opinions expressed by guest bloggers are their own.
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I was taken aback when I read Justice Breyer's reference to Prof. John Donohue's law review article about racial bias in Connecticut's administration of its capital sentencing scheme. That a United States Supreme Court Justice would quote an article about a study that was thoroughly rejected in litigation is astonishing. This is especially so in this instance, when the proponents of Donohue's study kept his written report from the habeas court to also block admission, on hearsay grounds, of the devastating and unqualified evisceration of his study by the state's expert.

I'm equally concerned that Justice Breyer cited the report without questioning the validity of Donohue's "egregiousness" scale. After all, Donohue just made up the scale and never tested it objectively to determine whether it indicated anything meaningful or relevant about  Connecticut's capital sentencing scheme. Thereafter, when his egregiousness results--compiled by law students from scrubbed summaries--disagreed with the results dictated by the statutory criteria for imposing a death sentence--as evaluated by experienced prosecutors, judges, and juries based on all the evidence--Donohue determined that the latter were arbitrary.

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