Steeler Sociology - again

January 31, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the Freakonomics blog, Steven Dubner lists “Ten Reasons to Like the Pittsburgh Steelers.” (He doesn’t say anything about liking them minus the six-and-a-half or seven points.) Reasons like
  • they’re a family team (still owned by the Rooneys)
  • they’re a small-market team (Pittsburgh population – 350,000)
  • they’re named for the work the city does (er, did)
  • they had a nutty, lovable radio guy (Myron Cope)*
and so on.

But here, for sociologists, is one more: Head coach Mike Tomlin, when he was an undergrad at William and Mary, majored in sociology.

(Although Dubner is a Steelers fan, he writes, “The Steelers may not be ‘America’s team’ ”; he doesn’t challenge the Cowboys’ claim to that title. I guess Dubner didn’t read this SocioBlog post from two seasons ago.)

*Dubner says Cope’s voice “sounded like gravel and Yiddish tossed in a blender.” But in fact, Cope had the purest Pittsburgh accent you'd ever want to hear (if you ever wanted to hear a Pittsburgh accent).

C. Wright Mills Orders Another Cosmopolitan

January 30, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston
I passed the night crying while he berated me for – of all things – not supporting his quest to play some college drinking game.
So writes Laney, the former girlfriend of a young Wall Streeter after her introduction to F.U.B.A.R. She calls Megan, her best friend, who has a similar tale of woe. Megan had recently learned that her parents were getting divorced.
The news was devastating and I justifiably fell apart a bit.. My FBF (Finance guy Boyfriend) . . . just couldn’t deal. . . .. A deal that he had been working on for the last year had fallen through, so he couldn’t talk about my parents’ divorce. He needed to go home and catch up on Gossip Girl (seriously). . . Fortunately that’s when Megan called to talk me off the ledge.
It’s unlikely that Laney and Megan, crying and on the ledge, respectively, had been reading C. Wright Mills.
The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals.
Nevertheless, the young women get together for “two hours of psycho-analysis and brunch at Market Table,” and emerge with this rather succinct version of the sociological imagination.
Our FBFs’ recent bad behavior and sudden lack of basic manners had nothing to do with us, it was the recession.

Mills: “They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct.”

Laney and Megan: “We felt our relationships were being victimized by the economy and there was nothing we could do to stop it.”

Mills’s response to the crisis he saw was a commitment to political action and “intellectual craftsmanship” (to social science and writing). Laney and Megan take a similar path. According to the story in Tuesday’s Times, they formed a support group, Dating a Banker Anonymous. And. . . .
Not knowing what else to do, we did what enraged yet articulate people have done since the beginning of time. We started a blog.
You can find the blog here.

Drinkikng, Death, Discontinuity

January 29, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last summer, some college presidents suggested that legislatures reconsider the drinking age. They didn’t come right out and say, “Let’s lower it to 18,” but that’s the way their statement was interpreted, and they did point out some of the problems that arise when it’s illegal for college student to drink.

But lowering the age may also have some negative effects. Like death.

In an article in the premier issue of American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Christopher Carpenter and Carlos Dopkin present data on alcohol, age, and death. The article is “The Effect of Alcohol Consumption on Mortality: Regression Discontinuity Evidence from the Minimum Drinking Age.” Their graph shows the discontinuities.
Laws make a difference. There’s a big jump in drinking once kids hit the legal age (the red line in the graph). And drinking makes a difference. The there’s also a jump in death at age 21, and most of those deaths are from automobile accidents, suicide, and other causes likely involving alcohol.

By the way, for those of us who can’t quite give up the quaint and antiquated notion that economics is about money, the journal also has the following articles:
  • “Many Children Left Behind? Textbooks and Test Scores in Kenya”
  • “Sticking with Your Vote: Cognitive Dissonance and Political Attitudes”
  • “Separated at Girth: US Twin Estimates of the Effects of Birth Weight”
That still leaves a majority of the articles (six of ten) that involve what we used to call economic factors.

Hat tip to Harold Pollack at The American Prospect.

Lit Fans Bid Updike Adieu

January 27, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

(A completely non-sociological post.)

Here’s my story about John Updike. It’s just a rumor, and I probably shouldn’t be repeating it (nil nisi bonum and all that). But here it is.

One of Updike’s most famous essays is “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” about Ted Williams’s last game. It begins, “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.” It ends nearly 6000 words later with Williams, in the last at bat of his career, hitting a home run.
He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. . . . the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.
Famous line, that last sentence. The essay is anthologized everywhere– sports books, literature books, Boston books.

“I arrived early.” That’s the first line of the second paragraph, and that’s where the rumor I heard begins. Updike had been living for years in Ipswich, north of Boston, with his wife and children. But in 1960 (and perhaps other years) he was having an affair with a woman who lived on Beacon Hill in Boston. Updike had come down to Boston that day for a tryst, but when he went to her home, she wasn’t in and apparently wasn’t going to be back for a while. With time on his hands and nothing else to do, Updike decided to go to Fenway. He arrived early.

Had he not been cheating on his wife, had his mistress been at home, we would never have this essay.

Is the story true? I don’t know. I heard it maybe twenty years ago, though I can’t remember where or from whom. I had forgotten it completely until my wife was converting some of our old family videotapes to DVDs, and I heard myself on tape telling it to my cousins. I’ve searched for confirmation on the Internet, but I can’t find anything.

Is it possible that it was that easy to get last-minute seats to a Redsox game? There’s nothing in the essay about it, of course. But as I was looking at it just now, this one sentence took on added meaning.
The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories.

I did meet Updike once. He was walking across Harvard Yard, carrying one of those dark green canvas book bags that were popular with students then, though he was well into his thirties at the time. None of the few people in the yard seemed to notice him. I caught up with him on the steps of a library. I didn’t know what to say. If I had said that I liked and admired his fiction, I’d have been lying. So I said that I very much liked his lighter poems and wished he’d write more of them. We talked for a minute – I can’t remember what either of us said – and as he turned to go in, he said he’d try to write more of the light verse. I think both of us knew that he didn’t really mean it.
Here’s an example of what I meant (I’m doing this from memory, so I might have the punctuation wrong. Roger Bobo was a tuba virtuoso.)

– headline in the Times

Eskimos in Manitoba
Barracuda off Aruba
Cock an ear when Roger Bobo
Starts to solo on the tuba.

Men of every station – pooh-bah
Nabob, bozo, toff, and hobo
Cry in unison, “Indubi-
Tably there is simply nobo-

Dy who oom-pahs on the tubo
Solo quite like Roger Bubo.

Update: A article from September 2008 says that Updike himself, in a 1977 epilogue to the essay, recounted the missed connections that took him to Fenway that day.
I took a taxi to Beacon Hill and knocked on a door and there was nothing, just a basket for mail temporarily hung on the door. A bright brown basket. So I went, as promised, to the game and my virtue was rewarded.
Those last five words seem quintessentially Updike – the combination of being oh-so-pleased with himself and yet being able to look at himself with irony.

Curiouser and Curiouser

January 25, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – I saw it Saturday night, and the thing I found most curious was the passivity of the hero.

In case you hadn’t heard, the film is about a man who is born old and wizened and ages in reverse. As the years pass, his body grows ever more youthful, while his mind grows older in the usual way.

The film contains three stories:
  1. A love story – Benjamin and Daisy. Fated to become lovers, and when they finally get together, they know that their love is doomed. Daisy will grow older while Benjamin physically becomes a child.

  2. US History 101. The film paints Benjamin’s life, and Daisy’s, against the broader canvas of historical events – from Armistice Day to Hurricane Katrina – with some notable omissions, like the Depression.

  3. Mother-daughter. Daisy, dying in a New Orleans hospital in the present, has her daughter read Benjamin’s diary to her. The Button story is told in these flashbacks. The mother satisfies her nostalgia, but the daughter is angry. “This is how you let me know who my father really was?” Or words to that effect. It was the only real dramatic conflict in the movie.
Through it all, Benjamin is strangely passive, especially for an American hero. Most leading men in US films don’t express much emotion, except anger. But they are usually men of action. (The trailers that preceded Button were full of guys chasing, shooting, fighting, blowing things up. Even the young women in the chick-flick trailer (Bride Wars) were slugging it out.) American protagonists take steps, tackle problems, compete, outwit outfight, etc. Benjamin, however, drifts along on the waves of history. He winds up in a naval battle, but as the bullets fly, we see him mostly lying on the floor of the tugboat while the boat ultimately destroys the German submarine.

He is passive with women as well, including the love of his life Daisy. He does go to Paris in pursuit of her, but when he finds that she has a boyfriend there, he’s very willing to take no for an answer and goes back to New Orleans. Years later, Daisy shows up and asks him to sleep with her. Here we finally see Benjamin as an active young man, riding a motorcycle, piloting a sailboat, making love. But these years, the late 1950s and the 60s, fly by in a nearly wordless montage that takes up only a few minutes in a film that lasts well over two and a half hours.

In the rest of the movie, Benjamin moves through life with a homey fatalism.
Along the way you bump into people who make a dent on your life. Some people get struck by lightning. Some are born to sit by a river. Some have an ear for music. Some are artists. Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons. Some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers. And some people can dance.
No surprise that the screenwriter is the guy who wrote Forrest Gump. What is surprising – no, curious – is that these protagonists who passively observe life rather than trying to change it are the center of highly regarded American films – films that get nominated of Golden Globes and Oscars.

The Inaugural II - Just Another Word

January 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Barack Obama used the word freedom three times in his inaugural speech. Presidents often invoke values in their inaugurals, so I would have thought we’d hear more about freedom. I guess my baseline expectations had been raised during the Bush years. George W. used the word 27 times in his second inaugural. That was unusually high. But three is not unusually low. By historical standards, it’s about average.

I had been thinking of freedom as one of those eternal American values. But that’s not the picture that emerges from the chart of inaugural speeches.

Freedom seems to be mostly a word of the post-War era. Several earlier inaugurals use the word not at all – among them both of Washington’s, both of Lincoln’s, and FDR’s first two.

Freedom is also favored more by Republicans than by Democrats. Combining all post-War Republicans and all post-War Democrats, we get
  • Democrats – 2.4 freedom per 1000 words
  • Republicans – 4.4 freedom 1000 words

The Inaugural I - Talking ’Bout Generation

January 22, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a Wordle of President Obama’s inaugural speech. (And by the way, how does it feel to you to say that phrase, “President Obama”?)
(Click on the Wordle to see a larger version.)

The word that is strikingly present here in comparison with other inaugurals is generation. Ronald Reagan used the word not at all in his first inaugural and only once in his second – a call to protect future generations from government spending.

Other presidents have spoken of generations, but the word usually appears as part of the unity-of-history theme. The inaugural is a ritual, and rituals exist in sacred time, a time that links the present with the past. So inaugurals often refer to America “across the generations” and to our obligation to future generations.

But over this continuity-of-generations line, some presidents sound a different theme – the theme of generational change. The most notable and most quoted version is JFK’s “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Kennedy saw that new generation as already formed. He pointed to their shared experiences – “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage”– and the shared values that emerged from those experiences – “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed.”

Obama, by contrast, sees himself and the generation that was such a crucial factor in his campaign with some uncertainty. It’s not about what they already are, it’s about what they will become. And that depends on how they respond to the crises that the previous generation has dumped on them. We are living in “a moment that will define a generation.”

Inaugural - The Benediction

January 21, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m not much of a connoisseur of religious speech (did anyone else notice – how could you fail to notice – Obama’s shout-out to “nonbelievers”?), but I thought Rev. Lowery’s benediction closing the inaugural was perfect. OK, maybe a bit too long. But what a finish. It stayed right on topic, a serious topic, but still provided needed smile at the end of an hour, a day, a two-year campaign, of gravity and high drama.

(Full text here.) Even if you don’t listen to the whole thing, drag the time button to 4:30 and listen to the last thirty seconds. And look at Obama and the others with him smiling.
help us work for that day when
black will not be asked to get in back
when brown can stick around
when yellow will be mellow
when the red man can get ahead, man
and when white will embrace what is right.
That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.
There’s a weak “amen” from the crowd, so he repeats the call twice. And you get the sense that hundreds of thousands of people on the mall and millions of people across the country were saying “amen.”

I watched the inauguration in a classroom full of undergraduates. They were all attentive. I didn’t hear any chatting, and I didn’t see anyone texting on a cell phone. Most of them filed out after the speech, so there weren’t too many of us left in the room when Rev. Lowery spoke. But I’d bet that none of the students who had been in the room with me knew what he was talking about in those last lines. Too bad.

Listen for yourself.

Is War Hell?

January 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ann Coulter got one right. Sort of. She takes the New York Times to task for a recent article on Iraq veterans who have committed murder. (Full Coulter column here.)
The Treason Times' banner series about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans accused of murder began in January last year but was quickly discontinued as readers noticed that the Times doggedly refused to provide any statistics comparing veteran murders with murders in any other group.
She’s right about the lack of data. She’s also right that by focusing on anecdotal evidence and not using rates, the Times appears to be deliberately promoting the crazed-war-veteran stereotype.

Coulter, on the other hand, is arguing that among things that drive people to murder, a year or two patrolling the streets of Baghdad is no worse than life in these United States. Is she right?

Coulter provides some comparative stats.
From 1976 to 2005, 18- to 24-year-olds -- both male and more gentle females -- committed homicide at a rate of 29.9 per 100,000. Twenty-five- to 35-year-olds committed homicides at a rate of 15.8 per 100,000.
The Afghanistan war started in late 2001, Iraq in 2003. But Coulter uses data spanning 1976 to 2005. Using data from the Iraq war era (2003-2008) would give a somewhat lower figure, no higher than 27 per 100,000. Ideally we would adjust that by age, sex, race, and region to make it comparable to the demographics of the army.

The crucial question is: what is the rate of homicide among Iraq war veterans? To answer that, we need to know how many veterans there are and how many murders they committed. Not easy.

The Times cites 121 murders by Iraq vets, but The Times’s research on “homicides involving all active-duty military personnel and new veterans” turned up “349 cases . . . about three-quarters of which involved Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.” And those are just the ones the Times found by searching through court records and newspapers. So 270 is a minimum estimate. Considering that the Times included the years starting with the Afghanistan invasion of late 2001, it works out to about 40 per year.

That’s the numerator. What about the denominator?

How many veterans? Coulter gives the number of troops who have served as 1.6 million, a very high-end estimate. John Hinderaker, a conservative who launches grenades at the Times article from PowerlineBlog, proposes less than half that. “For the sake of argument, let's say that 700,000 soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors have returned to the U.S. from service in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

But should we count all of them? The war-crazed-vet hypothesis is concerned with the psychological effects of combat and the daily exposure to death, mutilation, and danger. Should we count the airmen and sailors? Should we count soldiers who serve in some support capacity and never see battle or go out on patrol?

We also need to know not just the total number of returned vets; we need to know the number for each year. That 700,000 number is cumulative. There were certainly not 700,000 returned troops in 2002 or 2003.

So Ann Coulter is right, not in what she says but in the implications of what she says: to see if war is hell and whether that hell has lasting consequences on those who go there, we need good data. The trouble is that we don’t have it.


January 18, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

In some places these days, there’s more than one reason to celebrate.

(For those who don’t recognize this image – could there be such? – it’s Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. For more on the link between the broader appeal of the Steelers and the Democrats, see this post from the early days of the Socioblog.)

I don’t know much about copyright law, but I imagine that the Obama campaign wouldn’t have wanted to copyright “Yes we can” even if they could. As for the visual, I guess you can’t copyright a style, a look, or a technique. Besides, Shepard Fairey, who created the Obama picture, says he’s not interested in enforcing the copyright, at least not against those who are using it for a worthy cause. And Mike Tomlin and the Steelers are certainly worthy.

The graphic was created by CommonWealth Press, a printing company on Pittsburgh’s South Side. If you want a t-shirt (and of course you do), go here. Pittsburghers take the Steelers seriously. The fifteen highest rated TV broadcasts of 2008 in the Pittsburgh market were fifteen Steeler games, with a 44.5 rating and a 66 share.

Privilege and Invisibility

January 17, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

It has been months since I felt the need to scream with a blood-curdling cry at some commie, partisan subordinate (i.e., most of the [Voting] section staff until recently). And I feel like the people I now work with are all complete professionals. What a weird change. Granted, these changes are nice in many respects, but bitchslapping a bunch of [Division] attorneys really did get the blood pumping and was even enjoyable once in a while. I think now it's all Good Cop for folks there. I much preferred the role of Bad Cop. . . . But perhaps the Division will name an award for me or something. How about the Brad Schlozman Award for Most Effectively Breaking the Will of Liberal Partisan Bureaucrats. I would be happy to come back for the awards ceremony.
That’s a memo (June 2006) from Brad Schlozman, a Justice Department official.

The Bush administration tried to turn the Justice Department into a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican National Committee. That’s obvious to everybody. Well, almost everybody. What’s interesting is that those most responsible for politicizing Justice seemed to think that they were being anti-political. Schlozman seems to have seen his hiring policies as getting rid of politics, taking Justice out of the hands of partisans and returning it to “real Americans.”

There’s a broader lesson here: Privilege – of race, gender, class, ideology, or anything else – works best when it’s invisible. As soon as people become aware that some groups enjoy privileges denied to others, the game is half over. To maintain their position, the privileged groups will now have to resort to obvious forms of power. It’s much easier if the system goes unquestioned.

Also, those who benefit most from privilege are usually the last to notice it. They cling to the idea that the system is neutral. Things that work in favor of the dominant group are “natural.” It’s only those who point out the privilege who are playing politics. For example, the Bush tax cuts, in the Republican view, were right and good – letting people keep their own money. To point out that the tax cuts disproportionately benefitted the wealthy was to engage in “class warfare.” Similarly, although nearly all the people Schlozman hired had ties to the Republican party or conservative groups, he saw himself as getting rid of “partisan bureaucrats” and replacing them with “complete professionals.”

We May Have Disagreed With Him on Iraq, the Environment, Torture, Tax Cuts . . . But

January 16, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

President Bush was not especially popular among college professors, but apparently in his final days in office, he's trying to change that.

(Full story here.)

Separated at Birth?

January 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Chris Uggen, in a blog post on “doppelgangers,” says that he was surprised to find that there are four people who share his name.

Chris is stretching the meaning of doppelganger. It’s not about names. It usually means “any double or look-alike of a person.” The Wikipedia entry adds that seeing one’s doppelganger can be a portent of danger.

One of the co-nominals Chris finds is an orthopedic surgeon. But if Chris wants to find a real doppelganger, he should try looking in the kitchen. Of course, that ominous portent might make for a kitchen nightmare.

(Thats Chris on the left, multi-starred chef Gordon Ramsay on the right. Or is it the other way round?)

"They" Write the Books

January 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a radical idea: textbooks are written by people. I know, it doesn’t seem alien to us academics. But in students’ thinking, textbooks and teachers represent two completely separate and different spheres. Teachers – you can take them or leave them. Textbooks are absolute and unimpeachable if often impenetrable.

Kieran Healy, in a comment at Scatterplot, recounts an exchange between a student and a professor who had just offered some ideas from a paper he was working on. The student was skeptical.
S: You mean you’re just making it up?
P: Well, in a sense, yes. But in another more important sense, no.
S: I’m not comfortable with going beyond the textbook like this.
P: Where do you think the stuff in the textbook comes from? Out of the ground in Nebraska or something?
Well, yes. To my students, the origin of textbooks is a matter of mystery and awe. The texts might be handed up out of the Nebraska ground or handed down from a sacred mountain. In either case, human authorship is out of the question. This, despite our constantly referring to books not by their titles but by their author’s name. (“For Monday, read chapter four in Newman/Stark/Tischler/Macionis/Whoever.”)

To students, the author of all textbooks is not someone with a name. It’s “They.” “They” is a windowless fortress-like factory in some remote location, spewing out books that students are forced to buy. “They” produce chemistry books, sociology books, economics books – just about everything on the bookstore shelves for course readings

I had a vague sense of the width of this chasm, in students’ perceptions, between textbooks and teachers. But I didn’t fully catch on until one year when I was teaching criminology and used the textbook I myself had written. Several weeks into the semester, a student had a question about some point I was making or some data I was presenting. I don’t remember the topic or the issue. All I remember is that the student said, “But didn’t they say . . .” and she went on to offer some bit of information.

“They?” I asked, “What they?”
“In the book. Didn’t they say that . . . .” she repeated the information.
“They is me,” I said. “I wrote that book.”

She seemed genuinely stunned, and I sensed that many in the class shared her confusion. The book was a school textbook; therefore it must have been written by the same “They” that churned out all textbooks. Yet here was someone they knew, a very ordinary person they saw two or three days a week, claiming to have written the book, and the evidence on the cover seemed to support his claim.

I don’t think they ever truly resolved the dissonance.

I'm a Sociologist and I'm O.K.

January 8, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Being a sociologist may not be the best job in the world. But, hey, eighth out of 200 ain’t bad.
That’s the news from The Wall Street Journal (I’ve always said the WSJ was a wonderful publication). On Tuesday, the Journal released the results of an evaluation by of two hundred jobs.

(For a larger version, click on the image.)

Oh, sure, you could be a welder down at #194 on the list, or a lumberjack (#200), and you might be O.K. But if you’re playing the percentages, and if you can’t quite do the math, you could do a lot worse that sociology as a career.

Why did we do so well? CareerCast’s criteria were
  • environment
  • income
  • employment
  • outlook
  • physical demands
  • stress
Here's a bit of what a statistician (#3) might call anecdotal evidence.
Mark Nord is a sociologist working for the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service in Washington, D.C. He studies hunger in American households and writes research reports about his findings. "The best part of the job is the sense that I'm making some contribution to good policy making,” he says. “The kind of stuff that I crank out gets picked up by advocacy organizations, media and policy officials.”

The study estimates sociologists earn $63,195, though Mr. Nord, 62, says his income is about double that amount. He says he isn't surprised by the findings because his job generates little stress and he works a steady 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule. “It's all done at the computer at my desk,” he says. “The main occupational hazard is carpal tunnel syndrome.”

On the opposite end of the career spectrum are lumberjacks. The study shows these workers, also known as timber cutters and loggers, as having the worst occupation, because of the dangerous nature of their work, a poor employment outlook and low annual pay -- just $32,124.

Hat tip: Chris Uggen

Drug Pushers

January 7, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m in Florida visiting my mother. When I go to make out a shopping list, I notice that every pad of paper, every post-it, every pen, carries the logo and name of some drug – bounty from visits to doctors.

But that will all stop now. The drug companies aren’t admitting that the freebies they lavish on doctors have tainted the practice of medicine. But even though there’s nothing wrong with treating doctors to these gewgaws or the sandwiches for the office staff and nice dinners for the docs, Big Pharma has vowed to stop it.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's new rules for interacting with health care professionals:
• No branded pens, pads, mugs or other “leave behinds”
• No tickets to theaters or sporting events.
• No “dine and dash” meals dropped off in doctor's offices.
• No expensive dinners out at restaurants.

Big deal. I doubt that the mugs and pens were swinging much weight. These are doctors, after all. They’re not going to toss you a Manhattan-worth of drug sales for $24 worth of trinkets. No, the real problem is the money for speeches and “research.” Not only are these fees much heftier. More important, the speeches and research don’t look like corporate PR. They keep the large hand of the drug company hidden behind the curtain. There’s no sales rep pushing a product. Instead, it’s one doctor informing other doctors, colleague to colleague.

This money from Big Pharma corrupts the practice of medicine, and it corrupts research. Take a look at the article by Marcia Angell in the current New York Review of Books, (ungated, at least for now, here). Here’s the money quote.
It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

January 5, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Men – the gang that can’t shoot straight.

Long ago, I blogged (here) about public men’s rooms, particularly the mess caused by men peeing outside the box. Here was the stuff of culture. The American approach to unwanted behavior is typically to define it as sin and punish it, and I suggested (only half facetiously) that our first impulse would be to try to curb splashing by levying heavy fines.

The Dutch by contrast have a less morally absolutist approach. They see unwanted behavior as a problem to be solved. Instead of posting signs threatening punishment, they gave men a target to shoot at – a fly painted on the porcelain – and spillage decreased by 80%.

But American culture, in addition to its moralism, also has a healthy streak of pragmatism – a practical concern with results. Nothing succeeds like success, and apparently news of the effective insect has crossed the Atlantic.

I was at JFK Airport last night (the teenager formerly in residence was himself about to cross the Atlantic), and in the men’s room, every urinal still had its central fly. I had noticed something similar at the Newark airport last summer, though with a slight variation. JFK gives shooters a realistic fly to aim at. Newark uses a cartoon-like bee (a realistic bee might might trigger a counterproductive startle and flinch).

(For a larger picture, click on the image.)

No doubt, other painted-on insects are coming soon to an airport urinal near you.

UPDATE, January 6. The target idea hasn't caught on everywhere. I'm blogging this from the new Jet Blue terminal at JFK, where the urinals have no small creatures in them, real or painted.

The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money

January 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s NFL playoff season, and here at the Socioblog, that means it must be time for The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money.

The idea behind the “wisdom of crowds” is that the average guess or prediction of a large number of people will be more accurate than that of a few experts (“the smart money”). I looked at these principles two years ago, in a series of posts (here, here, and here).

Today’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Arizona Cardinals seems to pit the public against the insiders. The opening line had the Falcons as 3-point favorites, and the public money came in on the Falcons. Normally, the bookmakers would try to balance their books and get an equal amount of money on both sides. To encourage more people to bet on the Cardinals and discourage Falcon bets, they would raise the point spread. Falcon backers might think twice if they had to give up 3 ½ or 4 points rather than 3.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the line went down. On Friday, Cardinal bettors were getting only 1 ½ or 1 point. Apparently, in addition to the public money coming in mostly on the Falcons, the bookies also got “smart” money on the Cards. The oddsmakers were responding not to the amount of money but to the source. If the smart money was on the Cardinals, they would lower the line to encourage the public to bet on Atlanta.

So today’s game offers a clear choice. If you believe in the wisdom of crowds, you’ll follow the public and bet the Falcons and be happy that you have to give up only a point or so. If you think the smart money is smart, you’ll bet the Cardinals. (But remember, the smart money bet early and got the Cards plus 3 points; you might only get one, or none. Even so, my money’s on the Cards.)

UPDATE Saturday Evening.
The money must have kept coming in on the Cardinals, because by game time they were favored by as much as 2 ½ points. The Cardinals won the game 30-24. The smart money got it right.

Sociology Blogger Scoops The New York Times

January 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Back in 2008, I wrote about the New York Parking Violations Bureau – particularly their willingness to haggle. Get a ticket and don’t like the high number on the fine, no problem. They’ll offer you a one-third discount. (The blog post is here).

Today, the New York Times finally breaks the story on page one, above the fold.