Moneyball Crime Fightin’

Instinct. Guts. Street Smarts. Experience. These are qualities of a great cop, right? But does a belief in heroic crime fighting get in the way of fighting crime?

In an intriguing TED talk, Anne Milgram, former Attorney General of New Jersey, demonstrates how she used smart statistics to zero in on the real problem crimes and criminals in the Garden State.

Her methods produced remarkable results. Like so many people today who are successfully solving our most intractable challenges, she broke down the problem by asking essential questions and then followed the data to the real bad crimes. It didn’t surprise me that she found that too much time, focus, energy, manpower and money are being spent on low-level drug crimes, and not enough on gangs, violent crime, and crippling corruption.

People seem to dislike this statistical approach because it lacks the street smart gritty glamor of the gumshoe cop on the beat–think Hill Street Blues. But what we think is most important and what is most important are often different, even in the eyes of “experts.” Overconfidence Effect and Illusion of Control are cognitive biases that veteran detectives, successful stockbrokers, doctors–and experienced teachers like me–possess whether they (or we) admit it or not. These biases lead “experts” to believe that all they see is all there is (I paraphrase Daniel Kahneman) and think that their experience and wisdom are right. Big Data, especially now that we have the computing power to crunch it, can help us get a more realistic picture of the real problems of the world. But I hope we are as skeptical of Big Data as we are of experts. Big Data has blind spots, too.

Ehrlich’s Population Bomb Was a Dud…

…and Malthus was dead wrong.

As a child in the 70s, I remember watching TV specials with ominous graphs of population explosion. The screen would then cut to a circa 1975 shot of a loud, crowded, polluted New York City. Next a shot of a Biafra baby, then footage from the Vietnam War or the killing fields of Cambodia. Looking back, it’s no wonder that so many of my generation are depressed!

The most famous population doomsdayer was Paul Ehrlich, author of the famous and aptly titled book The Population Bomb. The alarmist tone and dire predictions can be summed up in this excerpt, taken from Wikipedia:¬†The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…”

So what happened? Well, Ehrlich thought that agricultural production was near its limits, despite the fact that he was living in the midst of the Green Revolution. As it turned out, technological progress improved at a much faster clip than population increases.

Here’s how Bill and Melinda Gates explained it in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal:

Going back at least to Thomas Malthus in 1798, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can’t keep up with population growth. This kind of thinking has gotten the world in a lot of trouble. Anxiety about the size of the world population has a dangerous tendency to override concern for the human beings who make up that population.

Letting children die now so they don’t starve later isn’t just heartless. It also doesn’t work, thank goodness.

It may be counterintuitive, but the countries with the most death have among the fastest-growing populations in the world. This is because the women in these countries tend to have the most births too.

When more children survive, parents decide to have smaller families. Consider Thailand. Around 1960, child mortality started going down. Then around 1970, after the government invested in a strong family planning program, birthrates started to drop. In the course of just two decades, Thai women went from having six children on average to having just two. Today, child mortality in Thailand is almost as low as it is in the U.S., and Thai women have an average of 1.6 children. This pattern of falling death rates followed by falling birthrates applies for the vast majority the world.

Saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation. Just the opposite. Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality and access to contraceptives is the only way to a sustainable world.

The Death of the Death Penalty?

Like most people, I usually don’t bother with newspaper editorials, but this one took me. Like the cult of gun ownership in America, the death penalty seems to be sacred amongst a vocal minority who still believe in this “eye for an eye” punishment. Despite so many arguments against capital punishment–dubious deterrence value, exorbitant expense, irreversibility–it has persisted. The high (low?) point of the death penalty since its reinstatement was 1998, when 98 people were executed.

Things have changed for the better. While the steep increase in executions in the 80s and 90s was alarming, the steep decrease of the past 15 years has been surprising. Last year 39 people were executed, fewer than half as many as the peak in ’98. While this is still very troubling, many believe it is a matter of time before the Supreme Court puts an end to capital punishment. Proponents of the death penalty are in a squeeze. The high court may again deem execution “cruel and unusual” because the lethal injection drugs are hard to come by and sometimes manufactured in a (legislated!) shroud of secrecy. And it could easily be struck down on the grounds of due process and equal protection because the death sentence is so disproportionately dished out to black people who murder white people. And DNA evidence has shown how often the criminal justice system is wrong when it comes to murder convictions.

Trends like this give me a lot of hope because not long ago I thought that the death penalty, like anti-gay laws, was going to resist the winds of change. But changes in public attitudes and laws regarding gay rights have come quicker than I would have guessed, and I hope the same is true for the death penalty.

Of Marshmallows and Man

There’s a fun article about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (not the Stanford Prison Experiment ūüôā ) in a recent New York Times Sunday magazine, entitled “We Didn’t Eat the Marshmallow. The Marshmallow Ate Us.”

The article is a “Riff” (their characterization; check it out) on the major finding of the study: four year olds who were able to delay gratification were more successful as adults.

While I enjoyed the article, I disagree with the author’s take. He saw the experiment as a Calvinist club to be used against the lazy and the shiftless: Not successful? That’s your fault, you don’t have self-control. (I exaggerate his conclusions. He also questions the methodology and other issues.)¬†

Nonetheless, I see it much more simply: self-control can help you be successful. Most worthwhile endeavors require sustained effort. No self-control, no sustained effort, no (or fewer) successful worthwhile endeavors. That seems like a pretty straightforward statement, but in my postmodern childhood, self-control was seen as something of a character flaw.

Where I grew up, people with self-control were, well, “controlled,” “uptight,” “OCD,” and “neurotic.” Those of us (and I am one of them) who had less self-control, were “free,” “uninhibited,” “fun,” “crazy,” and “happy.” Woodstock free lovin’ rock-n-roll was the ideal.

I’ve spent my professional life teaching in progressive schools in a large east coast American city. Most of the parents, in order to afford the tuition, had to delay gratification to get the piasters to pay for expensive private schools. They nonetheless paid for the “free” philosophy of progressive school, even if it contradicted in some ways their climb up the ladder for their child’s education.

Now I’m not knocking the freedom of a progressive education. But as an insider, I do think we (progressive educators) too often let the kids off the hook, like any challenge or trouble students face should be supported or accommodated. You know, self-esteem and all that. We don’t want to hurt their feelings. Too often, the child doesn’t have to “man up” when the going gets tough.

So I think that both freedom and self-control are required for success. I think there’s a false dichotomy between “free” and self-controlled. I am the type of person who says hello to any stranger and can dance on a crowded subway platform, but it takes a fair amount of focused self-control for me to…well…do almost anything. That said, whenever I marshal self-control, my uninhibited self has never disappeared. Neither freedom nor self-control is the ideal. Some kind of balance of the two is my ideal.

I once saw a movie about the sculptor Alexander Calder. Each morning he would get up, work until lunch, eat, then get back to work until dinner. No one would call the work of Calder “uptight” or “OCD,” yet his work rituals looked a bit old fashioned. “Square,” as the hep cats used to say.

Ultimately, self-control is a tool. As the untiringly creative (and obsessively focused and driven) guitarist Robert Fripp said on the back of an album cover, “Discipline¬†is never an¬†end¬†in itself, only a¬†means to an end.” Self-control can hurt if it controls you, but if it remains a tool, it is a key to the fulfillment of one’s creative, free self. Groovy.

Three Myths

Source: Wall Street Journal

“By almost any measure, the world is better off now than it has ever been before.” But what does Bill Gates know? My friend Piers Bocock shared a story with me in today’s WSJ. In it Bill and Melinda Gates punch more holes in the archaic belief that funding development is throwing good money after bad. I used to believe this…because in many respects it was true! In the Cold War foreign “development” aid was meant to keep anti-communist dictators on our side. But now there’s a new development paradigm. Gates-style megaphilanthropists + globalization + ubiquitous, hand-held computing/telecommunications + rising education = the rapid and sustained development of nearly every poor country on the planet.

Abundance: The Case for Optimism

Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, is another great book about the positive transformations happening around us. I was turned onto it by my friend Piers Bocock, whose wife Katie used to work with Diamandis. As it happens, living in the Washington, DC, area has meant that I’ve come to know many people in international development over the years. I think it was from them that I sensed the positive tipping point that we’re at…essentially what I blog about in Getting Better Blog.

TED talk: Peter Diamandis: Abundance Is Our Future

Diamandis and Kotler focus on means and areas of transformation, including water, food, energy, education, healthcare and human rights and freedoms. These breakthroughs will come because of accessibility of technologies and the DIY solutions that are coming from all over the planet. He also gives special attention to the “Rising Billion,” the very poorest who will have access to technology and education–and be able to leverage solutions–in a way that the poor have never been able to do in the past. Innovations and breakthroughs have mostly come from the top and middle, but more and more they’re coming from everywhere.

Other forces, like the technophilanthropists, typified by Bill Gates, are having an impact that the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the past could never have imagined. Carnegie built libraries, but did he deliver lifesaving medicines to millions, and in just a few years? The size and impact of “smart” (and well funded) philanthropy is yet another force that is propelling the world to a better place.


Are We Getting Smarter? Duh!

Hi friends, happy to be sharing the good news again. Today I’d like to talk about one of the coolest trends in science, something that has been noticed and very well studied for some time–the Flynn Effect.

What’s the Flynn Effect? To quote the post-postmodern version of the OED,¬†Wikipedia, it is “the substantial and long-sustained increase in … intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day.”

Are you kidding me? I thought kids were getting dumber due to their video games and smart phones.*

Yep, we’re getting smarter, and it’s been studied thoroughly. Possible reasons? Many are given, including our more stimulating environment and the substantial decrease of lead–a nasty neurotoxin–in our homes. James Flynn himself gives a good summation of his Effect in a TED Talk.

So remember the Flynn Effect when the inane mumblings of nearby adolescents make you fear the future of humanity. They’re much smarter than they sound.

*One of my next reads is Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson.