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Sociological Gobbledygook

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"Although some people have urged that this Court should amend the Constitution by interpretation to keep it abreast of modern ideas, I have never believed that lifetime judges in our system have any such legislative power."  -- Justice Hugo Black, concurring in McGautha v. California (1971).

Yesterday in the reapportionment case, Chief Justice Roberts expressed a similar sentiment on transcript page 40.

[T]he whole point is you're taking these issues away from democracy and you're throwing them into the courts pursuant to, and it may be simply my educational background, but I can only describe as sociological gobbledygook.
No, Mr. Chief Justice, it's not your educational background.  I call it "sociobabble," a variation on the "psychobabble" theme, but "sociological gobbledygook" will do nicely.
On many contentious social issues, including crime, there is often reason to suspect that researchers are partisans who decide what position they want first and then design a study to provide support for that result.  In the history of the "harder" sciences, there are many examples of researchers being dragged by their data to results they found distasteful, but that is not seen as often in the "softer" ones.

It is refreshing then, to see this article in the WaPo by Leah Libresco.  She studied gun control at FiveThirtyEight, and her research changed her mind.

Crime and Temperature

Sometimes research confirms what "everybody knows."  Frank Otto has this article at Drexel Now reporting research finding that violent crimes and disorderly conduct are positively correlated with temperature.

The research, conducted by Leah Schinasi, PhD, assistant research professor, and Ghassan Hamra, PhD, assistant professor, both of Drexel's Dornsife School of Public Health, was published in the Journal of Urban Health and used a decade's worth of crime data in Philadelphia (from 2006 until 2015) to find that rates of violent crime and disorderly conduct increased when daily temperatures are higher.
How do changes in sentencing among the various states correlate with changes in their crime rates?  I did some quickie calculations on yesterday's crime stats to find out.

Yesterday, as noted earlier, the FBI released Crime in the United States -- 2016.  This is the official compilation of crimes known to the police nationwide.  Crimes committed but not reported are another issue.  Table 2 reports crimes both as numbers and rate for the states and regions for 2015, 2016, and the percent change.  I extracted the percent change numbers for the states, though the FBI's spreadsheet format didn't make it easy.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics annually reports Prisoners in the United States.  The latest such report, for 2015, gives us the change in the number of prisoners from 2014-2015.  So, with a one-year lag, how do state-by-state prisoner changes correlate with crime changes?

My quickie spreadsheet calculation shows a coefficient of correlation between violent crime rate and prisoner change of -0.27.  For property crime it is -0.31.  If we use numbers of crimes instead of rates, the correlations are a tad stronger.

A negative correlation means that the two variables tend to move in opposite directions.  As number of prisoners goes down, crimes tend to go up.  That is just what persons of sense would expect.

This is not proof, of course.  Correlation is not causation, as we have noted here many times.  I haven't yet done the further analysis required to state the magic "p factor" required by respectable publications to even report a correlation.  Compare this post.  I will do that when I get back to the office and have better tools.  There is also the usual caveat about relying too much on one year's data, and a few others could be thrown in.  Even so, these correlations are strong enough that I thought readers would find them interesting.
David Neumark, professor of economics and director of the Economic Self-Sufficiency Policy Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine, has this op-ed in the WSJ regarding the empirical research on the effects of boosting the minimum wage.  The particular issue is, of course, off-topic for the blog, and CJLF takes no position on it.  The tone of the debate, though, is all too familiar to those of us who study studies in criminal law:

Does the minimum wage destroy jobs? The debate over that question often reduces to dueling economic studies. One side cites analyses showing that employers respond to a wage floor by cutting hours or jobs. The other side pulls out studies saying the minimum wage is a free lunch for workers. To really understand what's going on, you need to get under the hood.

The key challenge in estimating the effects of a rising minimum wage is identifying a good control group. Generally economists want to find a set of workers who weren't subject to the policy change, but who otherwise experienced similar economic trends. Still, that leaves a lot of leeway for choice.

There are two big differences between physical and social science.  You can run an experiment with quadrillions of subatomic particles and carefully control the conditions, so that you have two otherwise truly identical groups with the variable you are measuring as the only difference.  Humans object to being controlled like that, and you can't have that many of them.

The other big difference is that if you are studying the spin of quarks you won't get demonstrators outside your office and half of your colleagues signing letters against you if you come up with the "wrong" answer.  Some of the greatest moments in the history of science have been experiments that showed that what "everybody knows" is not actually true.

It's the Culture, Stupid


Last month, law professors Amy Wax of U. Penn. and Larry Alexander of U. San Diego published this op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Their thesis was that the breakdown of "the basic cultural precepts that reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s" was "implicated" in a host of modern maladies, including crime:

Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.
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That [late 40s - mid 60s] culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

This would seem to be self-evident and ought not be controversial.  But Wax and Alexander work in the Bizarro World of contemporary academia.

Neighborhood Crime Rates

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Like increasing the resolution on a camera, going to finer-grained data gives us a sharper picture of crime, seeing things that we don't see from coarse-grained data.

"Well the south side of Chicago is the baddest part of town," Jim Croce told us musically in '73.  It still is.  Rafael Mangual of the Manhattan Institute has this article in the City Journal.

What this analysis shows is that, in many American cities, a substantial number of residents live through what can only be described as a homicide epidemic. And, despite assurances to the contrary, nowhere is that epidemic more pronounced than in Sub-Chicago, which happens to be 88 percent black and Latino. If we're serious about improving life in places like South and West Chicago, we must confront the uncomfortable truths about crime concentration in U.S. cities. Step one is recognizing that while most of the country is relatively free from such violence, a portion of the country lives in the urban equivalent of a killing field. These Americans don't need to be told that crime is down nationwide; they need protection.

Crime in California, 2016

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Last summer, we reported that the annual Crime in California report showed that crime in the formerly golden state was up across the board.  This year's report, which is 2016 data due to the reporting lag, is more mixed but still not good news, as noted in today's News Scan.

Violent crime rates* rose across the board, 4.1% percent overall.  See Table 2 on page 11 of the PDF file.  The 2015-2016 interval is the first time in recent years that we have had a one-year change number with a consistent definition of rape (see footnote 1), and that figure is up a worrisome 6.4%.

Property crime rates have bounced around since 2011, the last year that was mostly before the major California sentencing changes.  Last year the overall property crime rate was up 6.6% percent from the year before, and this year it is down 2.9% from last year.  Overall, property crime rates have been pretty flat since 2011, with a -1.9% change overall.  National property crime rates have dropped steadily over the 2011-2015 period.  We should have national 2016 numbers in a couple of months.
Andy Kessler has this article with the above title in the WSJ.

Hands down, the two most dangerous words in the English language today are "studies show."

The world is inundated with the manipulation of flighty studies to prove some larger point about mankind in the name of behavioral science. Pop psychologists have churned out mountains of books proving some intuitive point that turns out to be wrong. It's "sciencey," with a whiff of (false) authenticity.
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Further Issues with Brain Imaging

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Day after day it seems we are told that neurosciences will dramatically change in how we conceptualize human behavior and ultimately culpability.  As I have noted extensively in the past, there are many problems with this view.  The newest difficulty was published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Functional MRI (fMRI) is 25 years old, yet surprisingly its most common statistical methods have not been validated using real data. Here, we used resting-state fMRI data from 499 healthy controls to conduct 3 million task group analyses. Using this null data with different experimental designs, we estimate the incidence of significant results. In theory, we should find 5% false positives (for a significance threshold of 5%), but instead we found that the most common software packages for fMRI analysis (SPM, FSL, AFNI) can result in false-positive rates of up to 70%. These results question the validity of a number of fMRI studies and may have a large impact on the interpretation of weakly significant neuroimaging results.

Hat tip to Prof. David Bernstein of Antonin Scalia Law School for pointing out this article, a long but illuminating study about why it's misleading to compare murder rates in the United States with those in other "developed countries."  It starts:

Much of the political thinking about violence in the United States comes from unfavorable comparisons between the United States and a series of cherry-picked countries with lower murder rates and with fewer guns per capita. We've all seen it many times. The United States, with a murder rate of approximately 5 per 100,000 is compared to a variety of Western and Central European countries (also sometimes Japan) with murder rates often below 1 per 100,000. This is, in turn, supposed to fill Americans with a sense of shame and illustrate that the United States should be regarded as some sort of pariah nation because of its murder rate.

Note, however, that these comparisons always employ a carefully selected list of countries, most of which are very unlike the United States. They are  countries that were settled long ago by the dominant ethnic group, they are ethnically non-diverse today, they are frequently very small countries (such as Norway, with a population of 5 million) with very locally based democracies (again, unlike the US with an immense population and far fewer representatives in government per voter). Politically, historically, and demographically, the US has little in common with Europe or Japan.
The Brennan Center is an enthusiastically pro-criminal outfit affiliated with NYU. It produces a number of papers it calls "reports," but which are actually advocacy pieces for lowered sentencing.

It came out with one recently, titled "Crime in 2016: Final Year-End Data." Mostly, it presents a chipper picture.  But if you look hard enough...

Lying By Cherry-Picking

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There are many ways to misuse numbers to intentionally create a false impression in the mind of the reader.  Such deception is morally no different than lying, in my view, even if one carefully avoids saying anything false.  Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has pointed out an exceptionally egregious example from the New York Times.

The headline of the Times article is "Amid 'Trump Effect' Fear, 40% of Colleges See Dip in Foreign Applicants."  The article states:

Nearly 40 percent of colleges are reporting overall declines in applications from international students, according to a survey of 250 college and universities, released this week by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
The actual finding of the survey is "39% of responding institutions reported a decline in international applications, 35% reported an increase, and 26% reported no change in applicant numbers."  That is a complete nothingburger, but cherry-picking the first number creates a very wrong impression.

Cowen is too generous in the title of the post:  "This one is a real blooper and I cannot let it pass by."  The word "blooper" implies an innocent mistake or accident.  This looks like intentional deception to me, and that appearance is reinforced by the fact that the misleading story and atrocious headline are still on the NYT website three days after this has been all over the internet.  Additional commentary comes from James Freeman at the WSJ and Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy.

We see similar cherry-picking in arguments about criminal justice, but this is such a clear and obvious example of the deceptive tactic that I thought it worth noting here.

Federal Criminal Statistics

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The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released a report on Federal Justice Statistics 2013-2014.  Note the time lag.  That's part of the problem with justice statistics.

Another problem is that statistics are sometimes defined in ways that people would not expect.  "Tracking recidivism rates involved identifying prisoners released from federal prison following a U.S. district court commitment between 1998 and 2014."

What about people released from federal prison and subsequently prosecuted by state authorities?  Not in the definition.  Not tracked.

Three-fifths of federal arrests in 2014 were made in just 5 of the nation's 94 judicial districts -- Southern Texas, Western Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California.  What do these five districts have that none of the others have?  You guessed it.

Since 2011, California has gone further than other states in the rapid dismantling of its tough-on-crime policies, so we have been keeping track of California crime rates as compared with the nation as a whole.  Here are graphs showing 2011 to 2015 with data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports.*

The "realignment" bill, AB109, took effect in October 2011, and one would not expect much effect in the first couple of months.  So we can consider 2011 to be a base year.  California shows a jump in violent crime the following year while the rate for the country as a whole was essentially flat.  California had a sharp jump in property crime for 2012, while the national rate was declining.

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