Recently in Studies Category

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."

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.

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.

Disparate Impact

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This story by Justin Freiman at HLN has some food for thought for persons concerned about disparate impact of government policies:

Violent crime hits people with disabilities more than twice as often as people without disabilities, according to a study just released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The federal study shows that in 2013, the rate of violent crime against persons with disabilities was 36 per 1,000. The rate of violent crime against persons without disabilities in 2013 was 14 per 1,000.
As we have noted many times on this blog, getting tough on crime was a major factor in the dramatic reduction of crime during the 1990's and 2000's, and those who have forgotten history and seek to repeat it put all of us in danger.  But they put persons with disabilities in even greater danger.
I have noted on this blog a few times the hazards of putting too much faith in studies conducted with mathematical models.  See this post in 2011 on the interesting book Models Behaving Badly and this one last year on the disastrous failure of a sports prediction model.

One good thing about election prediction models is that we get quick and conclusive results about whether they are right or wrong.  Charles Forelle has this story in the WSJ about the meltdown of British pollsters in last week's election.

The website FiveThirtyEight, run by statistics guru Nate Silver, who made his name with accurate predictions of U.S. presidential elections, used a model developed by British academics. It came up with 278 seats for the Conservatives and 267 for Labour, and put the probability at 90% that the Conservatives would win between 252 and 305 seats. They won 331.
The difference between the prediction and the outcome was double what was supposed to be a 90% confidence interval.  That's more than failure; that's crash and burn.

The reason I bring this up is to remind everyone to be skeptical when someone asserts that some proposition is proven because "studies show" it to be true when the studies are based on mathematical modeling.  Such models can provide indications but not definitive proof, and it is a serious error to rely on them entirely.
"Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked," Justice Holmes famously said. 

The role of intent in distinguishing criminal acts from noncriminal accidents and higher-degree offense from lower ones is deeply ingrained in our law.  It may be deeply ingrained in our brains.  Robert Sapolsky reports for the WSJ on a study of scanning people's brains as they read about intentional and unintentional killings.  The study is Treadway, et al., Corticolimbic gating of emotion-driven punishment, Nature Neuroscience 17, 1270-1275 (2014).
It is always important to remember that most people with mental illness are not involved in crime nor are they prone to violence.  In fact, treatment for mental illness is fairly ubiquitous in our society.  The next time you are at a family gathering or among your colleagues there is a fair chance that someone in your presence has been struggled with depression, addiction or some of form of mental illness. 

But we still hear claims that there is no relationship between mental illness and crime or violence.  We hear this despite numerous studies, including several population-based studies, that have shown time and time again that there is indeed a relationship between mental disorder and crime.  The latest issue of Psychiatric Services provides the latest evidence:

Bipolar disorder is a severe and prevalent psychiatric disease. Poor outcomes include a high frequency of criminal acts, imprisonments, and repeat offenses. This critical review of the international literature examined several aspects of the complex relationship between individuals with bipolar disorder and the criminal justice system: risk factors for criminal acts, features of bipolar patients' incarceration, and their postrelease trajectories.

Publications were obtained from the PubMed and Google Scholar electronic databases by using the following MeSH headings: prison, forensic psychiatry, criminal law, crime, and bipolar disorder.

Among patients with bipolar disorder, the frequency of violent criminal acts is higher than in the general population (odds ratio [OR]=2.8, 95% confidence interval [CI]=1.8-4.3). The frequency is higher among patients with bipolar disorder and a comorbid substance use disorder than among those without either disorder (OR=10.1, CI=5.3-19.2). As a result, the prevalence of bipolar disorder among prisoners is high (2%-7%). In prison, patients' bipolar disorder symptoms can complicate their relationship with prison administrators, leading to an increased risk of multiple incarcerations. Moreover, the risk of suicide increases for these prisoners.

Criminal acts are common among patients with bipolar disorder and are often associated with problems such as addiction.

California v. National Crime Rates

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Here is an update on California versus overall United States crime rates.  The table below shows the rates per 100,000 population for the FBI's violent crime index and property crime index for 2011, nine months of which predates the Realignment program, and 2013, the most recent year with full data available.  The data are from the downloaded files on the FBI's Crime in the United States reports for the respective years.

The nation as a whole had a 6% drop in property crime over the two-year period, while California had a 3% increase, a difference of 9%.

How Dumb Do They Think We Are?

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Newsflash:  Incapacitating people who commit crime has no effect on the amount of crime.

Do you believe that?

A far left advocacy group, the Brennan Center, wants you to.  The press release from their latest propaganda (heralded, as ever, as a "study") states:

Increased incarceration had some effect, likely in the range of 0 to 10 percent, on reducing crime in the 1990s. Since 2000, however, increased incarceration had a negligible effect on crime.

Convincing the public that there is little or no relationship between (1) increased incarceration of people who commit crime and (2) enormous crime reduction over the last quarter century is critical to the efforts of the pro-criminal lobby to sell miniaturized sentences (which they understandably call by the opaque name "sentencing reform").  The lobby knows by now  --  in part because of its humiliating failure in Congress  to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act  --  that the public simply is not going to buy slashing sentences as long as it understands that a crook who's in prison is not ransacking your house while you're at work, or selling heroin and similar goodies to your teenager.  Hence the effort to convince us that incarcerating criminals has nothing or next to nothing to do with crime reduction  -- arguably the most important domestic policy success of the last fifty years.

Related Newsflash:  The centuries-long link between crime and punishment just disappeared.

These people are a hoot.

UPDATE:  The Heritage Foundation, which takes the same robust pro-"reform" position as the Brennan Center but is a great deal more honest, recently took the view, through its distinguished Fellow, John G. Malcolm, that increased incarceration could be credited with between 25 and 35 percent of the last generation's crime reduction.  See Mr. Malcolm's remarks starting at 7:35 of this tape.  Somebody's telling a whooper, and it's not John Malcolm.

Fingerprint Error Rate: Zero

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Natalia Zea reports for CBS Miami on a study of fingerprint match reliability.

The fingerprint examiners correctly matched every single print in the tests, with only 3 percent of the inaccurate matches caught by a second examiner, which is part of normal protocol at crime labs across the country.
That's rather awkward phrasing.  Presumably it means that 3 percent of the matches found by the first examiner were not correct but all of the errors were found and corrected on the second examination.

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