Proving Yourself Wrong About Things You Think You’re Right About

December 20, 2012

By Christopher Duston

This is a story about hypothesis and fact-checking on the gun-violence debate. And about how proving you are wrong about something is better the thinking you are right.

I was listening to an interview on NPR with Jack Levin, a sociologist and criminologist from Northwestern Northeastern University in Boston. He commented that there are not very many similarities between the shooters in these mass killings, making it hard for policy-makers to target the problem. However, he said most of them had some kind of “history of depression.” I did not verify the accuracy of that statement, but that suddenly made sense to me – it is at least believable that citizens in a 21st century United States face new social, economic, and technological challenges that could increase the rate of depression.

The details of this depression-link (if it even exists) would be very complicated, but if we claim that it is because of some kind of major change in our society, we should look for an indicator that detects such large scale phenomena. In other words, it can’t just be the growing income gap that is causing us to unleash outlandish violence against each other.

So we need something that will measure the “total health of a society”; such things exist, for instance the Legatum Prosperity Index (LPI), which takes into account various factors such as economy, healthcare, and personal freedom. This seems like something that would track what I’m interested in, since the basic claim is that there are a number of different factors, which together contribute to an increase in gun violence.

And, the great thing about the LPI is that Wikipedia lists the top 30 (and bottom 20) countries for the years 2012-2008. You don’t need a degree in criminology or a class in statistics to look at numbers.

We want to compare to gun violence rates; again, Wikipedia helps! You can get the firearm-related death rate (per 100,000 population). You can even sort it. (Although, this is ALL firearm-related deaths; I am not isolating mass shootings. In this case, Wikipedia’s entries are so detailed that broad categorization is hard).

So, with the most basic data analysis software you can imagine (Google Docs), I made a spreadsheet of the LPI rank of each country and their firearm-related death rate. I was already writing my segment as a guest on Rachael Maddow…but then I made the plot. Well I was wrong. As you can see, there is zero correlation between the LPI rank and firearm-related deaths.


But this doesn’t mean we didn’t learn anything. The LPI is not a discriminating enough tool; my interpretation is therefore that gun violence is not connected to “quality of life,” broadly defined. Of course, there are all kinds of other possibilities, but this is a simple analysis, and so I restrict myself to simple (and imprecise) statements.

I’m not saying there is a complete lack of analyses out there about the violent nature of the United States – I won’t do a literature search, but good people certainly work on the problem. However, with the democratization of data, we need to acknowledge that no one should be allowed to get away with statements that are not backed up by at least a minimum of quantitative analysis. This analysis took me about 35 minutes. I just came up with something I thought was brilliant, hopped over to Wikipedia to mine some data, plotted it using a FREE online service, and proved myself wrong. Study over.

Police yourself!

PS: One guess as to which blue dot is the U.S. Yup, it’s that one. Yeah, we have less gun violence per capita than the likes of Mexico (LPI rank 61), Brazil (44), and Colombia (69), but that is not the group we should be in.

Christopher Duston is a graduate student in the physics department at Florida State University. His research focuses on mathematical physics and quantum gravity, and he will receive his Ph.D. in May 2013.

Statutes of Limitations

October 25, 2012

Contributed by Charles Platt

For two weeks, now, UK residents have been stunned by an avalanche of revelations–or at least accusations–regarding the BBC and one of its most famous, nationally revered figures, Sir Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey who hosted shows over a period of decades. Savile endeared himself to the British by doing charity work for hospitals, and was even given his own little room at one, allowing him free access to the entire facility. Apparently he used this access to molest young people, many of them under the age of consent, when they were incapacitated or in wheel chairs. I’m reminded of Willie Sutton’s famous quote, explaining that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money was.” Savile appears to have volunteered at a hospital because “that’s where the helpless young girls were.” The appearance of cold-blooded premeditation is remarkable.

He was also a frequent visitor to a “reform home” for “troubled young girls,” some of whom he would take for rides in his Rolls Royce, where the self-described victims have alleged that sex acts occurred in the back seat. Several hundred women have now come forward with allegations. One BBC executive has already resigned, while others are finding it difficult to claim that they knew nothing. Contemporaries of Savile who are still alive, especially in the music-broadcasting section of the BBC, are being named as co-conspirators. Savile seems to have gotten away with it because he was protected by his fame, his wealth, and his charitable donations to the very places where he has been accused of preying on innocents. Others who worked with him are much more vulnerable, even though they may be now in their 70s and 80s.

Since Savile is now dead, the British press is relatively free to run with this story, despite the strict libel laws in the UK. Journalists have been far more circumspect about naming living suspects–until they issue statements of denial, at which point they become “fair game.”

More interesting to me (but less relevant to this blog) is that there is no statute of limitations on serious sex crimes in the UK. Since many of the alleged events occurred in the 1970s, a defendant may have a hard time coming up with exculpatory evidence to refute the allegations of a sobbing alleged victim in a court room. A blog here claims that in Germany, claims from victims dropped by 80% when that nation discontinued its practice of awarding compensation to crime victims, except where there was corroborative evidence. The same blog claims that, conversely, in Britain, where compensation is paid to victims, claims of abuse that occured decades ago have doubled during the past three years, coincidentally with the economic downturn. 

A statute of limitations may seem intuitively unjust to many people. If the crime occurred, why should someone get away with it just because it happened more than, say, 7 years ago? I note that in some areas of the US, limitations have already been abolished or modified for sex offenses, thus copying the British model.

I am assuming that readers of this blog would distrust any further erosion of statutes of limitations, especially if such protection was reduced or eliminated in First Amendment cases.

Or would they?

U.S. v. Heicklen Explained – a Win for the Wizened and Worried

April 24, 2012

By Larry Sutter, Special to the Legal Satyricon

The Southern District of New York recently issued its order dismissing the United State’s case against Julian Heicklen.  The order is available here.  While this is an interesting case about the protection of speech advocating jury nullification, what is even more interesting is the story behind it – from both the people involved to the affect it has had on New York’s legal community.

The Defendant: An 80-year-old retired chemistry professor who believes in freedom and liberty. Like, a lot. He stands in front of the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan handing out pamphlets advocating jury nullification. Calling him “cantankerous” is an understatement that does violence to the language: With his counsel’s motion to dismiss still pending, he addresses a letter to the federal judge who has his case firing his court-appointed standby federal defense counsel–a letter in which the salutation is “Dishonorable Judge Wood,” and the closing is “yours in disgust and hatred.” Among other requests, the letter sought the indictment of the District’s US Attorney.

As part of the investigation, the US Attorney sends an undercover agent posing as a juror to talk to the professor – who advises him he has the right to decide both the law and the facts in the interest of justice. The professor is then indicted for violating the federal jury tampering statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1504. Ironically, such a charge does not merit trial by jury.

The federal defenders, who moved to dismiss the case on every possible ground before they were fired, including § 1504’s vagueness and overbreadth in violation of the First Amendment. But even in their briefs, the defenders refer to their client as a “shabby old man distributing his silly leaflets.”

New York’s legal community has drawn its battle lines over the case, spawning numerous articles on our precious heritage of freedom.  Prominent attorneys forecast that mere anarchy would be loosed upon the world—as two eminent lawyers argued last December in The New York Law Journal:

“Pause for a moment to imagine how this would work in practice with cases involving politically heated and classically divisive social issues….Runaway jury verdicts would amount to little more than a random 12-person vote….Talk about an engraved invitation for chaos—indeed, anarchy.”

Indeed? Indeed! Which the prosecutors were glad to echo. Last month, an Assistant U.S. Attorney characterized Heicklen’s advocacy as “an absolute threat to the system,” during a hearing on the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

But then comes a noble-visaged Portia of a judge to render justice between these parties.  Filleting the statute as skillfully as the countermen at Zabar’s wield their razor-sharp knives upon the $28-a-pound Nova Scotia salmon, Judge Kimba Wood rules that because the statute—giving effect to all its language, not allowing any of its provisions to be condensed or duplicated—only forbids attempting

“to influence the action or decision of a juror upon an issue or matter pending before that juror or pertaining to that juror’s duties by means of a written communication made in relation to a a specific case pending before that juror or in relation to a point in dispute between the parties before that juror.” (Emphasis the Court’s.)

Therefore, generalized exhortations—as opposed to urging the juror to throw a specific case—are OK. (source)  And you don’t even have to get to all those tricky First Amendment issues, do you?

Nevertheless almost half the decision is spent not getting to the First Amendment issues. In particular, the judge found that the danger, whatever it might be, in free-floating jury nullification advocacy wasn’t clear or present enough to pose “a danger to the administration of justice.” Why shouldn’t the jurors respond as sympathetically to the judge’s instructions to follow the law as she gives it as they might to Heicklen’s exhortation to disregard it?  Indeed, Judge’s Wood statutory interpretation reached the same result Heicklen’s counsel urged in their overbreadth argument, namely, that to convict Heicklen for what he was doing would be to punish protected First Amendment activity, viz.,  speech not directed to a specific case or matter before a particular juror.

Heicklen is said to be pleased and is reported to be planning to resume his post Monday in Federal Plaza and, afterwards, go to lunch with his supporters. Dutch treat, of course. It’s reported (on Scott Greenfield’s Simple Justice blog) that his email to this effect was signed, “one small step for a shabby old man, but a giant leap for justice and our country.”

“Feminism” In Iceland: Saving Women From Their Own Adulthood

December 7, 2010

By Dr. Marty Klein

Iceland, the world’s oldest democracy, is now heading in exactly the opposite direction. And they’re doing it in a familiar way—by eliminating choices regarding sex.

Iceland has now criminalized all strip clubs. And forget even something as quaint as a topless bar; the repression of the 1950s is looking positively progressive, as the law even makes it illegal for a business to profit from the nudity of employees.

What makes this law particularly repulsive is the crowing of self-proclaimed “feminists” and “women’s advocates,” who seem unable to grasp the simple idea of adult choice. Member of Parliament Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir says, “It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold.”

By that, I assume she also plans to shut down all theaters and soccer matches too, well-known sites where “women or people” are a product to be sold. You say that that’s where the public purchases performances by women and men? Explain that to the strippers who are now out of jobs because Parliament disapproves of their performances.

The legislation, of course, comes bundled with claims about forced prostitution, rape, and trafficking, legitimate issues that are trotted out on cue whenever someone wants to justify restrictions on any consensual sexual expression. They are the sexual equivalent of flag-waving and mom-&-apple-pie.

Iceland’s prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottirs is not only a woman, but an open lesbian. As Americans already know, female politicians are no more willing to guarantee sexual rights to women than the most misogynist male. Apparently, lesbian politicians are just as willing to curtail others’ rights as straight politicians. No surprise there, either—as we’ve been saying for decades, gay people are just people who happen to be gay. Some of them are against sexual expression and sexual rights.

Plenty of dictatorships and women-hating countries in our world officially ban stripping—either for “moral” or “religious” reasons. Iceland has the distinction of being the first country in the world to ban stripping and lap-dancing for allegedly feminist reasons. They think this is a good thing. To an adult woman prevented from doing what she wants by a government who doesn’t trust her to make her own decisions, it’s a pathetic distinction.

Guðrún Jónsdóttir of Stígamót, an Icelandic organization fighting sexual violence, supports the ban because sex “is not a commodity.” That’s the same sophomoric nonsense that Pope Benedict XVI uses to deprive women of their right to contraception and abortion. Is he a closet feminist, too?

This piece originally appeared on Marty Klein’s Sexual Intelligence Blog, here. (reprinted with permission)

Unprotected Speech from Outside the US

September 14, 2010

by Charles Platt

Send a drunken email from the UK to the White House, calling the president a prick, and you’re banned from the United States for life. Or so it says here.

Drunk Driving: A Victimless Crime

April 12, 2010

by Charles Platt

I wonder if anyone else agrees that drunk driving is a victimless crime. A conviction merely affirms that a person was more likely than average to hit someone or something. Well, all kinds of people are more likely to do that, such as the elderly, or people who simply don’t have an aptitude for driving.

State laws used to recognize this, more or less, by allowing police to make a judgment call about impairment, based on their observations. But that wasn’t good enough for Candy Lightner, whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. In the wearying tradition of family members who want to make the death of a loved one seem more meaningful by inconveniencing everybody else, Lightner started Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The name of this brilliant campaign guaranteed its success. Who could possibly disagree with Mothers (that most sacred category of human being) who wanted to protect their children from alcohol-crazed hit-and-run maniacs? Alas, it ended up criminalizing the people whom it was supposed to protect.

Young people themselves are the most likely to drink and drive. So, MADD’s answer was to stop them from drinking–even including the ones who didn’t own cars and didn’t have driver licenses. Of course the federal government lacked constitutional authority to enforce this, so it simply threatened to take away a percentage of highway finds if the states didn’t capitulate. Such coercion would be familiar to any mafia boss: “Nice little highway you have here. Be a shame if something happened to it. Maybe you should think about raising the legal drinking age to 21.” Thus young people who had been 18, 19, or 20 at the time suddenly had to stop drinking, or become criminals. Once they were 21 they could start drinking again.

Does anyone imagine that this actually worked? I have never yet met any teenagers who aren’t able to obtain alcohol if they want to. College presidents are aware of this, which may have been why more than 100 of them got together in 2008 and demanded that the legal drinking age be lowered. No doubt they were weary of trying to enforce a prohibition that is unenforceable. Of course, their plea was ignored.

Candy Lightner subsequently quit from MADD. Her demands for salary increases had been rejected, which may or may not have been a factor. In 1994 she became a spokesperson for the American Beverage Institute, a lobbying group which represents some liquor companies. She argued against a further tightening of the law regarding illegal levels of blood alcohol, stating that MADD had become “neo-prohibitionist.” Apparently even she realized that the juggernaut that she created had gotten out of hand.

Too late, Candy. Young people lost some more of their dwindling rights, and police departments gained a great new tool for raising revenue. Lives have been disrupted in the process, since people convicted of DUIs lose their licenses in many states, and this can be catastrophic for someone who lives alone in a rural area. Meanwhile, millions of teenagers have gained criminal convictions as a result of doing something that is legal for the majority of the population.

All this in the cause of preventing a crime that might happen.


July 4 And Your Sexual Freedom

July 4, 2009

Dr. Marty Klein

Dr. Marty Klein

By Marty Klein, Ph.D
Special Guest to the Legal Satyricon

This weekend we celebrate the birthday of our country. Many will do this by participating in a parade, getting drunk, or displaying the Stars & Stripes. But there are other ways to celebrate the sacrifices that have made America the world’s most radical experiment in free speech and free thought.

It’s not the fact that you were born here that makes America great. It’s the principles that America stands for, struggles with, and protects. So this week you’ll be honoring those who have fought and died for America when you:

* Use birth control
* Download porn
* Watch the Sopranos or South Park
* Go to a raunchy comedy club or listen to a raunchy CD
* Have non-intercourse sex
* Get a lapdance at a neighborhood club
* Have sex with someone of a different race
* Have sex with someone of the same gender

Every single one of these acts took a court decision to affirm its legality—many from the Supreme Court. Yes, the same historic court that ended racially segregated public schools was needed to decide that Americans could legally purchase contraceptives, and that whites and blacks could have sex together.

When you live your normal life this week—using condoms, watching grownup TV, shopping in private on the internet, enjoying oral sex, ignoring ads for massage parlors in your local newspaper—you’ll be honoring the lives and hard work of thousands of plaintiffs, lawyers, judges, clerks, and volunteers.

These men and women may not have died in the line of duty, but they are on the front lines, serving our country. We have no medals for Bill Baird, Phil Harvey, Mildred Loving, Sherri Williams, or other heroes who have risked their lives, freedom, money, and sanity to protect our sexual expression. They fought not against a foreign enemy, but against tremendous pressure right here at home—from tyrannical majorities, powerful minorities, vindictive government agents.

These same elements threaten our basic American rights today.

Like other freedoms, sexual freedom isn’t free. Today, on our country’s birthday, let’s remember those mostly-anonymous people who struggled and suffered to make America safer for sexual expression and the commercial and intellectual activities needed to support it.

Let’s also remember the human beings languishing in American jails simply for creating sexually explicit films that millions of grownups have bought to use in their own homes. Our government has spent our money to stop these people from expressing themselves. If these people aren’t political prisoners, who are?

Some will say that our founders didn’t suffer at Valley Forge or die at Lexington & Concord so that your niece can buy rubbers, or a guy down the street can go see a stripper, or you can hear Jon Stewart say “dickhead.”

I say that that’s exactly why people died to create America—a special country in which people have the extraordinary right to do, say, and think things of which their neighbors—and government—disapprove.