Tag Archives: crime

Baloney data detective: Wilcox school shooters edition

Another day, another Brad Wilcox really? moment.

This just in from W. Bradford Wilcox, writing in National Review Online:

Another shooting, another son of divorce. From Adam Lanza, who killed 26 children and adults a year ago at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn., to Karl Pierson, who shot a teenage girl and killed himself this past Friday at Arapahoe High in Centennial, Colo., one common and largely unremarked thread tying together most of the school shooters that have struck the nation in the last year is that they came from homes marked by divorce or an absent father. From shootings at MIT (i.e., the Tsarnaev brothers) to the University of Central Florida to the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., nearly every shooting over the last year in Wikipedia’s “list of U.S. school attacks” involved a young man whose parents divorced or never married in the first place.

That Wikipedia “list of U.S. school attacks” includes (as of this moment) all of nine school attacks in the last year from Sandy Hook to the present. Oddly, this does include the Tsarnaev brothers, who after allegedly blowing up the Boston Marathon also allegedly shot a security officer at MIT — apparently enough to get them on the Wikipedia list of school attacks. And yes, their parents did divorce — after they were 18 years old. Also on the list, one shooting that resulted from a fight between two acquaintances (parents’ marital status unknown); and a guy with serious mental health problems whose mother, who had schizophrenia, apparently was never married to his father. And in the latest shooting, in Arapahoe, the perpetrator’s parents were divorced.

What a minute, though. I know it’s crazy to nitpick something this ridiculous, but: why “school” shooters, instead of rampage killers in general? Could it be because recent rampage killers James HolmesJared Lee Loughner, and Jiverly Wong – the three worst rampage killers in the U.S. since April 2009 — and Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, all had married parents? Maybe divorce makes people shoot up schools specifically. Interesting!

Wait another minute.

That Arapahoe guy was described as a “dedicated, bright student from a religious family that attends Bible study meetings.” The Tsarnaevs also “turned to religion with mounting fervor” before becoming school shooters. The shooter who attacked Santa Monica College earlier this year reportedly attended Sunday school as a child. Of course, Newton shooter Adam Lanza attended Catholic school at the church where the family were parishioners. Excluding one shooting in which no one was killed except the perpetrator, and the one that was really just a school fight, that’s 4 out of 7 with a religious connection. Of course, since I haven’t ruled out a religious background in the others, that puts the link somewhere between 4/7 and 7/7, or “up to 100%.”


I won’t jump to conclusions from such sketchy data — who do you think I am, Brad Wilcox? — but I think we have enough data now to at least raise the hypothesis that religion causes divorce and school shootings (but not rampage killings in general).


Filed under In the news

Is the rising tide of falling crime driven by fatherlessness?

Kay Hymowitz, who sometimes works out of a PO Box rented by Brad Wilcox, writes in the LA Times (excerpting heavily):

As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that, although both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it. …  Boys … “externalized” or “acted out”: They became more impulsive, aggressive and “antisocial.”… Boys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested. … And justice experts have long known that juvenile facilities and adult jails overflow with sons from broken families. Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems. … If the trends of the last 40 years continue — and there’s little reason to think that they won’t — the percentage of boys growing up with single mothers will keep growing. No one knows how to stem that tide.

Ah, the link between criminality and fatherlessness again. So ingrained is the assumption that crime rates always go up that conservatives making this argument do not even see the need to account for the incredible, world-historical drop in violence that has accompanied the collapse of the nuclear family. I know Kay Hymowitz knows this, because we’ve argued about it before. But if her editors and readers don’t, why should she make a big deal out of it?

In this graph I show the scales down to zero so you can see the proportional change in each trend: father-not-present boys ages 10-14 and male juvenile violent-crime arrest rates.


I’m not arguing about whether boys living without fathers are more likely to commit crimes. I’m just saying that this is very unlikely to be the major cause of male juvenile violent crime if the trends can move so drastically in opposite directions at the same time. These aren’t little fluctuations. Even if you leave out the late-80s-early-90s spike in crime, arrests fell about 40% from 1980 to 2010 while father-absent boys increased almost 50%.

If you are going to argue for a strong association — which Hymowitz does — and use words like “tide,” you should at least acknowledge that the problem you are trumpeting is getting better while the cause you are bemoaning is getting worse.


Filed under In the news

Who’s Afraid of Young Black Men?

Originally posted at TheAtlantic.com.

How gender did (and didn’t) affect the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial

AP Images

In conversation, I keep accidentally referring to Zimmerman’s defense lawyers as “the prosecution.” Not surprising, because the defense of George Zimmerman was only a defense in the technical sense of the law. Substantively, it was a prosecutionof Trayvon Martin. And in making the case that Martin was guilty in his own murder, Zimmerman’s lawyers had the burden of proof on their side, as the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Martin wasn’t a violent criminal.

This raises the question, who’s afraid of young black men? Zimmerman’s lawyers took the not-too-risky approach of assuming that white women are (the jury was six women, described by the New York Times as five white and one Latina).

“This is the person who … attacked George Zimmerman,” defense attorney MarkO’Mara said in his closing argument, holding up two pictures of Trayvon Martin, one of which showed him shirtless and looking down at the camera with a deadpan expression. He held that shirtless one up right in front of the jury for almost three minutes. “Nice kid, actually,” he said, with feigned sincerity.

Joe Burbank/AP Images

Going into the trial, according to one kind of analysis the female jurors were supposed to have more negative views about Zimmerman’s vigilante behavior, and be more sympathetic over the loss of the child Trayvon. As a former prosecutorput it:

With the jury being all women, the defense may have a difficult time having the jurors truly understand their defense, that George Zimmerman was truly in fear for his life. Women are gentler than men by nature and don’t have the instinct to confront trouble head-on.

But was the jury’s race, or their gender, the issue? O’Mara’s approach suggests he thought it was the intersection of the two: White women could be convinced that a young black man was dangerous.

Race and Gender
Racial biases are well documented. With regard to crime, for example, one recent controlled experiment using a video game simulation found that white college students were most likely to accidentally fire at an unarmed suspect who was a black male — and most likely to mistakenly hold fire against armed white females. More abstractly, people generally overestimate the risk of criminal victimization they face, but whites are more likely to do so when they live in areas with more black residents.

The difference in racial attitudes between white men and women are limited. One analysis by prominent experts in racial attitudes concluded that “gender differences in racial attitudes are small, inconsistent, and limited mostly to attitudes on racial policy.” However, some researchers have found white men more prone than women to accepting racist stereotypes about blacks, and the General Social Survey in 2002 found that white women were much more likely than men to describe their feelings toward African Americans positively. (In 2012, a minority of both white men and white women voted for Obama, although white men were more overwhelmingly in the Romney camp.)

What about juries? The evidence for racial bias over many studies is quite strong. For example, one 2012 study found that in two Florida counties having all-white jury pool – that is, the people from which the jury will be chosen – increased the chance that a black defendant would be convicted. Since the jury pool is randomly selected from eligible citizens, unaltered by lawyers’ selections or disqualifications, the study has a clean test of the race effect. But I can’t find any on the combined influence of race and gender.

The classical way of framing the question is whether white women’s group identity as whites is strong enough to overcome their gender-socialized overall “niceness” when it comes to attitudes toward minority groups. But Zimmerman’s lawyers appeared to be invoking a very specific American story: white women’s fear of black male aggression. Of course the “victim” in their story was Zimmerman, but as he lingered over the shirtless photo, O’Mara was tempting the women on the jury to put themselves in Zimmerman’s fearful shoes.

Group Threat
But do white women really feel threatened by black men? That’s an old, blood-stained debate. In the 20th century there were 455 American men (legally) executed for rape, and 89 percent of them were black–mostly accused of raping white women. That was just the legal tip of Jim Crow’s lynching iceberg, partly driven by white men asserting ownership over white women in the name of protection. But the image of course lives on.

In the specific realm of U.S. racial psychology, one of the less optimistic, but most reliable, findings is that whites who live in places with larger black populations are on average express more racism (here’s a recent confirmation). Most analysts attribute that to some sense of group threat–economic, political, or violent–experienced by the dominant majority.


Maybe white women’s greater overestimation of the black population is not an indicator of perceived threat. In the same survey white women were no more likely than white men to describe blacks as “prone to violence.” But that’s a question with an obvious right or wrong answer. Anyway, whether women feel more threatened than men do isn’t the issue, since the jury was all women. The question is whether the perceived threat was salient enough that the defense could manipulate it.

I don’t know what was in the hearts and minds of the jurors in this case, of course. Being on a jury is not like filling out a survey or playing a video game. But however much we elevate the rational elements in the system, of course emotion also plays a role. Whether they were right or not, Zimmerman’s lawyers clearly thought there was a vein of fear of black men inside the jurors’ psyches, waiting to be mined.


Filed under In the news

Steubenbille, Ohio, USA

From the FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

steubenville-rape-ratesSource: Individual metropolitan areas (with detail for cities within them): Table 6; National average and rates by community type: Table 2.



Filed under In the news

How many prisoners grew up with both parents?

A couple clarifications.

In her commentary on my commentary, Kay Hymowitz offered some evidence that single parenthood causes crime (or at least incarceration). She wrote:

Regardless, there is no disagreement that the majority, and perhaps the large majority, of inmates grew up in fatherless homes. It’s difficult to get up-to-date data since the Bureau of Justice doesn’t reliably track the family background of inmates. (They also put intact and step families in the same “two parent” category, though at least one study has found the later to be predictive of juvenile incarceration.) The 1987 “Survey of Youth in Custody” found that 70% did not grow up with both parents. Another 1994 study of Wisconsin juveniles was even more stark: only 13% grew up with their married parents. Here’s the conclusion of Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan, the doyenne of researchers about single parenthood: “[C]ontrolling for income and all other factors, youths in father-absent families (mother only, mother-stepfather, and relatives/other) still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those from mother-father families.”

You can follow the links to see her sources, except the Harper and McLanahan link, which is dead. Shockingly, Brad Wilcox also provided a dead link to the same quote. I was curious to see it because I would be surprised if any social scientist used the words “controlling for … all other factors.”

Anyway, for some reason Hymowitz missed the large, national study the Bureau of Justice Statistics does on inmates, which includes family background information, repeated since 1991. If you look at their report on the 2004 survey (which focused on drug issues), and make a few simple calculations, you can figure out that 55% of state and federal prisoners did not “live most of the time while growing up” with both parents. They don’t count “fatherless homes” separately, but even assuming most of the those 55% were living with their mothers, “large majority” is a stretch.

But what does that tell us anyway? The survey also shows these folks have experienced high rates of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, physical abuse, and family members’ incarceration. If only 55% of this population is from non-married-parents homes, that’s not a very strong case for an independent effect of family structure.

As importantly, the 2004 survey shows that 74% of state and federal inmates had previously been sentenced to prison or probation. By Hymowitz’s logic, maybe the biggest cause of crime is incarceration. This is not crazy at all, of course, it’s just not the point she wants to make.

People who think incarceration reduces crime often don’t appreciate how many people get out of prison — like Elizabeth Marquardt, who described the policy as, “lock up a lot more of those fatherless boys and throw away the key.” But BJS statistics show that 44% of inmates were released in 2010 (roughly 700,000 out, 700,000 in).

In case you have lost the thread, I think Hymowitz and the others that are so exercised by my little post are trying to protect this narrative: Marriage decline substantially caused the increase in crime in the 1980s and 1990s, and then continued to apply this upward pressure while incarceration was so effective that crime rates fell anyway. I don’t buy it on either end.


Filed under Uncategorized

Conservatives doubling down on single mothers and crime

The reaction from the right-wing family folks to my post about single mothers and crime.

In a post that appeared here and on TheAtlantic.com — but got extra attention when the figure appeared on Jezebel, Mother Jones, Slate, Andrew Sullivan’s Dish, Family Scholars, and Alas! — my point was that conservatives had been quick to attribute the rise in crime in the 1980s to the “breakdown of the family” and single parents. But then they didn’t revise their stories when crime dropped drastically without a reversal of the family structure trends. I thought single mothers deserved an apology.

They’ll have to keep waiting, I guess.

Within a few hours on Tuesday, we heard from some of the leading lights on the issue. Their conclusion was that if I don’t want more marriage then I must want more incarceration.

Maggie (let’s “drive a wedge between blacks and gays!”) Gallagher, on Family Scholars:

The ending of the violent crime wave was a great policy achievement. It seems however to involve massively incarcerating millions of young men we have not succeeded in civilizing. There is never only one way to skin a cat. But I’m not sure our souls should rest too comfortably on the solution we found.

Ross (Charles Murray is “brilliant!”) Douthat tweeted:

Fortunately, family breakdown doesn’t create any problems that mass incarceration of young men can’t solve.

(One good turn deserves another, I guess: Murray himself tweeted back: “Lovely. Menckenesque. Maybe even Wildeian (if Oscar had been a social scientist).”

Soon Elizabeth Marquardt, who is always committed to “excellent arguments and accurate data,” chimed in:

Well for pete’s sake, one thing we now do is lock up a lot more of those fatherless boys and throw away the key. Which means less crime.

Then Brad (recession is good news for marriage!) Wilcox produced a 10-year old graph of incarceration rates under the title, “Who Needs An Intact Family? Jail Will Do Just Fine,” suggesting that we might be “forced to choose between a stronger marriage culture and mass incarceration.”

What followed on all these blogs was a debate about all the interesting possible explanations for the decline of crime in America. Lost in all of it was that none of the old “family values” folks backed off the original story that crime rose in the first place because of family “breakdown.” Just to clarify: It is one thing to say that children who grow up with one parent present are more likely to commit violent crime. As a statistical association that is true, though the causal story is muddied by important confounds. But it is another — unjustified — thing to say that the crime wave of the 1980s and 1990s was substantially driven by the rise of single parents, which was a common claim, as I illustrated in the post.

Ballpark-acts of violence

(Here is the part where I spend more time thinking about the actual evidence than the pundits I’m complaining about. What follows isn’t scientific analysis: this is data ballparking and rumination.)

As Stephen Demuth and Susan Brown wrote in a 2004 article, identifying the causal effect of family structure itself on whether kids become violent is very difficult. You need to consider parental monitoring and supervision, the quality of the relationship between parents and children, the level of conflict in the home, as well as poverty, education, family transitions, housing, neighborhood factors, and so on.

In that article, however, they offered some numbers we can look at to ballpark the relationship between single-parents and violent crime.

Using the National Adolescent Survey of Adolescent Health, they added up the self-reported violent acts of students in grades 7 to 12 in 1995. The kids were asked how many times in the last year they (1) “hurt someone badly enough to need bandages or care from a doctor or nurse,” (2) “use or threaten to use a weapon to get something from someone,” and (3) “take part in a fight where a group of your friends is against another group.” They didn’t ask the specific number of times, but rather asked kids to report “0 (never), 1 (once or twice), 2 (three or four times), or 3 (five or more times).”

That’s enough to get a sense of what was going on in 1995, when the survey was done. If you take the scores on the three items added together, and take the mean of that sum for kids in different family structures, you can ballpark how many of these acts of violence kids in each family type committed. The idea is just to get a sense of the magnitude of the family structure difference and the relative contribution of kids in each group.

I’ve turned the scale into the average number of acts to make the figure below. For example, the mean for children living with single mothers was 1.2 on the scale. I gave them 1.5 (for “once or twice”), and then, for the additional 0.2, added 0.2*2 (with 2 representing the difference between 1.5 and 3.5 for “three or four times”). That’s a total of 1.9 “ballpark-acts”:

To show the relative contribution of the different groups of kids, I set the width of the bars to their share of the sample, in which 26% were living with either a single mother or single father, which is about right for that period. You can see from the estimate, for example, that kids living with single mothers admitted to 0.7 more ballpark-acts of violence per year, and those with single fathers admitted to 1.1 more.

With the amount of violence committed by each kid, and the relative size of the groups, it’s easy to calculate that those 26% of kids living with single parents committed 35% of the violent acts — more than their share, but not most of the total.

Remember, there are no controls in that analysis – it’s just compositional. There are a host of real reasons children with single parents commit more violence. This is just to see how big is the difference we are trying to understand.

Still, I have no trouble believing the decline of married-couple living arrangements contributed to the rise in violent crime rates since the 1960s, especially if you set aside the huge spike in violence from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Single-parent families have lots of challenges and shortages — mostly of money and time — that make it harder on average to keep their kids in line. (And, of course, one of the causes of single-parenthood is the rise of incarceration.) In the absence of sufficient big-government nanny-state infrastructure to help them get by, it’s not surprising that the problems they experience include a higher risk of violence.

But I see nothing to justify the apocalyptic end-of-civilization associations that were commonly served up then — and which apparently are still palatable to many of today’s family conservatives.

Aside: scale

In that Demuth and Brown article, they have multivariate models that allow us to compare effect sizes on violence. They show, for example, that having a parent who graduated college is associated with odds of committing violent acts 3.5-times as much as living with a single mother, once other factors are controlled (-.42 versus .12). It’s always easier to say there is an association than to ascertain how important it is relative to other things — and especially for how it contributes to a trend over time.

Consider some other findings in this literature that allow us to compare the scale of effects:

  • A study of religion and family structure effects on delinquency (an amalgamated concept) reported that living with a single parent increased the odds of delinquency about as much as 6 years of education reduced the odds.
  • A study from one school district found that, for boys (but not girls), having a single mother increased the odds of being referred for delinquency by 13%, compared with 9% for being poor.
  • Many studies — like this, this, and this, find no effect of family structure on delinquency once aspects of the parent-child relationship are controlled.

A common finding is that the level of attachment children feel with their mothers swamps the family structure effect, as was found in this study, in which there was no effect of family structure on serious or non-serious delinquency. Some, like this one, find that living with a single mother has a significant effect on delinquency, but it is smaller than the effect of maternal closeness.

Given the importance of factors such as poverty level, parents’ education, and peer and network effects – as well as family relationships – the more important and useful questions have to do with how we can improve the environment and outcomes for children with single parents (and for their parents). The causal impact of family structure itself is less pressing.


Filed under Me @ work, Research reports

Single Moms Can’t Be Scapegoated for the Murder Rate Anymore

This post originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com

Homicides in D.C. have hit a historic low, while the percentage of single-parent households remains steady.

As the year draws to a close, the Washington Post reports that the District of Columbia is heading for a historic low number of homicides: fewer than 100 for 2012. That’s down from the highs of about 450 per year at the start of the 1990s (while the population is about the same size).

Not mentioned in the story: the breakdown of the family. That’s surprising, because it was a big part of the story 20 years ago, when D.C. was the murder capital of the country during a national crime wave. I think single mothers—especially those who were raising their kids back in the 1990s—deserve an apology from the conventional-wisdom purveyors of that time.

Using the numbers from the Washington Post feature and Census data, I constructed homicide and single mother rates for 1990, 2000, and 2011, for Washington, D.C. Both trends have been pretty linear, so it’s reasonable to illustrate them with just a few points:

cohen_singlemomchart.pngSources: Homicide rates calculated from number of homicides reported by the Washington Postand population totals from the U.S. Census Bureau, along with single-mother rates, for 1990 and2000-2011.

The Post attributes the declining murder rates to rising incomes, improved law enforcement technology and community relations, and better trauma care (although the number of non-fatal assaults has fallen similarly). But if you go back to the Post from the late 1980s and early 1990s, you would have heard a lot about family structure.

A very early story, from 1985, raised the alarm about an apparent growing epidemic of amoral, violent, black young men:

Such incidents have raised new fears here [in D.C.] and across the country about the growing instability of urban black family structure and the creation of an underclass of young men capable of killing for a warmup jacket or a pair of running shoes. Social scientists, law enforcement officials and community leaders share some of the same theories about the reasons for this kind of homicide among poor black youngsters. They point to the intense desire for material things amid deprivation, easy access to handguns, and the inability of parents—often young, unmarried mothers—to control or instill values in their children.

In 1991, when Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan released a study on homicide trends, he declared:

The collapse of the American family in the past few decades is historically unprecedented in the U.S., and possibly in the world. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the black community…. Some argue that the high rate of single parenthood has not adversely affected our children. But, sadly, the research does not bear them out. . . . Study after study has shown that children from single-parent families are five times more likely to be poor and twice as likely to drop out of school. . . . They are also more likely to be involved in criminal activity, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to suffer ill health, and to become trapped in welfare dependency.

Sullivan’s solution was a return to a “culture of character,” which he described as “a culture in which parents invest time and attention in their children, and the children of a neighborhood; a culture in which children growing up without a father are a small minority.”

A 1994 article focusing on the increase in homicide among young people summarized it this way:

At the bottom of all this, people in every section of the juvenile justice system say, is a critical lack of parenting. … Federal officials estimate that 70 percent of children in juvenile court are from single-parent households. In the last 30 years, the proportion of single mothers has grown from one in 20 to one in four.

Family structure and parenting were not the only explanations offered for the epidemic of murder. There was plenty written about crack cocaine and the drug war turf disputes, the availability of guns, and about poverty and failing schools. But that single-parent theme was quite widespread.

I’ve written before about the assumption that the rise in single-parent families was responsible for the violent crime bonanza of the 1980s and 1990s. (Romney and Ryan returned to this theme.)

Looking at it from the perspective of 1990, it was easy to assume a strong causal relationship between the rise in single motherhood and the murder epidemic. By my reading of the research, it is true that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes. But other factors are more important. That must be the case, or we wouldn’t see the overall trends in the United States split this dramatically starting in the 1990s:

cohen_singlemomchart2.pngSources: Crime data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, family structure from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Violent crime has fallen through the floor (or at least back to the rates of the 1970s) relative to the bad old days. And this is true not just for homicide but also for rape and other assaults. At the same time, the decline of marriage has continued apace. Looking at two aggregate trends is never enough to tell a whole story of social change, of course. However, if two trends going together doesn’t prove a causal relationship, the opposite is not quite as true. If two trends do not go together, the theory that one causes the other has a steeper hill to climb. In the case of family breakdown driving crime rates, I don’t think the story will make it anymore.

And I’m open to explanations for why crime has really fallen, even including some minor role for the incarceration craze. But there were a lot of people who were not nearly so circumspect about the soundness of their causal stories when the family-breakdown-crime assumption served their ends. And it would be big of them to own up to it now.


Filed under In the news

Debate debate on single mothers and crime

In response to the presidential debate last night, a debate broke out over the role of single-mother families and crime. Here’s what happened, with a repost from one year ago, when I reviewed this issue.

In response to a question about the availability of assault weapons, Mitt Romney responded in part (from the transcript):

But let me mention another thing, and that is parents. We need moms and dads helping raise kids. Wherever possible, the — the benefit of having two parents in the home — and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone — that’s a great idea because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will — will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity and bring them in the American system.

In response, I tweeted:

and then:

Then Kay Hymowitz (the author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys) wrote: “The vast majority of violent criminals come from fatherless homes. Sorry. Them’s the facts. Doesn’t explain Aurora though.”

And then we had this exchange:

Me: Ok. But violent crime rates have plummeted while single parenthood keeps going up.

Her: Yes, crime has declined for a variety of reasons including, sadly, mass incarceration.

That reminded me that I looked over this research one year ago this week, and wrote the following, which I repost here:

Single parents, crime and incarceration

Sometimes a diagram is helpful to organize your thoughts.

A little while ago I commented that crime rates had fallen through the floor even though single parenthood is still on the rise, apparently contradicting a generation of conservative conventional wisdom that attributed rising crime rates to the decline of the nuclear family. In the graphs I showed a very strong positive relationship between crime and single parenthood from 1960 until 1991, after which the relationship was reversed.

In response, someone countered:

Your graphs on single-mother families and crime rates, and your accompanying commentary, conveniently miss any reference to the massive increase in incarceration since the 1980s … Were it not for the fact that this country has incarcerated more than a million men behind bars since the late 1980s, it is likely that the upward swing in single-motherhood & nonmarital childbearing would have been paralleled by an upward swing in crime.

I have written before about the family consequences of the drug war, focusing on how incarceration affects families, rather than on how (whether) family structure drives crime; as well as other aspects of the prison boom (such as giving birth in chains, distorted marriage markets, and how prisons contribute to the spread of HIV).

But I didn’t address the question of how incarceration may have saved us from a worsening crime wave driven by single parenting.

I still don’t have an answer, but I have some thoughts, which I have chosen to express in the form of a conceptual diagram, with references. Each of these links is at least plausible and at most conclusively shown by the research listed below. If I were to dig into this research, this is where I would start: an annotated free-association figure:

Click to enlarge the diagram.

From what I can see so far, it looks like incarceration causes single-parent families more than single-parent families cause crime. The numbered references are below. (Thanks to Chris Uggen for some leads.)

References (with links that might hit pay walls)

1.  Demuth, S. and S. L. Brown. 2004. “Family structure, family processes, and adolescent delinquency: The significance of parental absence versus parental gender.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41(1):58-81. Schroeder, Ryan D., Aurea K. Osgood and Michael J. Oghia. 2010. “Family Transitions and Juvenile Delinquency.” Sociological Inquiry 80(4):579-604.

2. Charles, Kerwin K. and Ming C. Luoh. 2010. “Male Incarceration, the Marriage Market, and Female Outcomes.” Review of Economics and Statistics 92(3):614-627.

3. Childs, E. C. 2005. “Looking behind the stereotypes of the ‘angry black woman’ an exploration of black women’s responses to interracial relationships.” Gender & Society 19(4):544-561. Robnett, Belinda and Cynthia Feliciano. 2011. “Patterns of Racial-Ethnic Exclusion by Internet Daters.” Social Forces 89(3):807-828.

4. Dixon, T. L. and D. Linz. 2000. “Overrepresentation and underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos as lawbreakers on television news.” Journal of Communication 50(2):131-154.

5. Dixon, T. L. and K. B. Maddox. 2005. “Skin tone, crime news, and social reality judgments: Priming the stereotype of the dark and dangerous black criminal.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 35(8):1555-1570. Dixon, Travis L. 2008. “Network news and racial beliefs: Exploring the connection between national television news exposure and stereotypical perceptions of African Americans.” Journal of Communication 58(2):321-337.

6. Tonry, Michael. 2010. “The Social, Psychological, and Political Causes of Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System.” Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Vol 39 39:273-312.

7. Pettit, Becky and Bruce Western. 2004. “Mass imprisonment and the life course: Race and class inequality in US incarceration.” American Sociological Review 69(2):151-169. Reiman, Jeffrey. 2007. The rich get richer and the poor get prison: ideology, class, and criminal justice. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon. Wakefield, Sara and Christopher Uggen. 2010. “Incarceration and Stratification.” Annual Review of Sociology 36:687-406.

8. I made this argument in a recent blog post here. For a more thorough review of media depictions of single parents, see: Usdansky Margaret L. 2009. “A Weak Embrace: Popular and Scholarly Depictions of Single-Parent Families, 1900-1998.” Journal of Marriage And Family 71(2):209-225.

9. On conservative foundation support for traditional-family-is-good research, see a few of my posts here, here, here, and here.

10. Nagin Daniel S., Francis T. Cullen and Cheryl Lero Jonson. 2009. “Imprisonment and Reoffending.” Crime and Justice: A Review of Research 38:115-200.


Filed under In the news, Politics

One case of very similar publications, with some implications and suggestions

This post deals with problems in academic research publishing. It’s off the usual topic of the blog, although the publications in question do concern families and inequality. I decided to publish it here rather than try to place it somewhere else because I thought it might be controversial, and I want to take personal responsibility for it. I welcome discussion of these questions here in the comments, or in other forums where these issues are pertinent — you are welcome to repost this, with attribution.

The case here is a pair of articles by John R. Hipp, an associate professor of Criminology, Law and Society at U.C. Irvine. The two articles are:

Little of substance is learned from one that could not be learned from the other, they contain many nearly-identical passages, and they both claim to make the same major original contributions. This isn’t the most extreme case like this ever published, but it’s the most obvious one I’ve noticed that involves a major sociology journal. Without attributing any cause or motivation, we can call these two “very similar publications.”

The practice of publishing VSPs:

  • Wastes the time of editors, reviewers, and future researchers.
  • Takes up valuable space in journals, space for which other researchers are competing for their publications and to enhance their careers.
  • Misleads reviewers and administrators who are evaluating and comparing publication records.
  • Misleads the research community by creating a false impression of the weight of original research on the topic (e.g., “many studies show”).
It is also just one symptom of a pretty broken publication and promotion system in academia, which I will return to later. I don’t know anything about the history of these papers, or the author’s situation or motives, so I limit myself to discussing the content of the papers. After discussing the case, I have a few suggestions. I’m sorry this is so long.

The case

Here are the two abstracts. I don’t know an elegant way to show these side beside except a screen grab (click for higher resolution); I numbered the sentences in the abstracts.

I highlighted the major difference between the two articles: the Criminology article analyzes perceptions of crime in “microneighborhoods,” while the Social Problems piece analyzes reported violent crime rates in Census tracts (and adds a measure of short-term crime rate change). This is a substantive difference, and it involves using different versions of the American Housing Survey. But the abstracts are not written as a sequence of incremental discoveries; they claim to make a number of the same innovations and discoveries. Substantively, the difference could have been handled with one additional table, or even a hefty footnote. (The first paper reports that the violent crime rate and residents’ perceptions are correlated at about .70). In any event, the difference is not a significant part of the motivation for either article, as the abstracts make clear.

Here are the outlines of the articles, with Hipp’s headings. As you can see, the Social Problems article includes a measure of short-term crime rate change, and the Criminology article includes a section on sensitivity analyses. They are not identical (the first paper also includes a methodological appendix).

The second paper, from Social Problems, does acknowledge the existence of the first, but not in a way that would truly communicate the relationship between them. It notes (p. 411):

Recent scholarship has suggested that … residents’ perceptions of crime in the microneighborhood can differentially affect in-mobility and out-mobility for different racial/ethnic groups (Hipp 2010b). We extend this literature by using official violent crime rates within the broader neighborhood as measured by the census tract.

Later (p. 414), the Social Problems paper minimizes the findings of the Criminology paper:

One study provided suggestive evidence of disproportionate out-mobility using information on the perceptions of crime among residents living within a micro-neighborhood of the nearest 11 housing units (Hipp 2010b). Whereas white households perceiving more crime were more likely to move within four years, black and Latino households showed no such tendency (Hipp 2010b). Furthermore, whites living in microneighborhoods with a general perception of more crime were also more likely to leave the unit, whereas Latino and black households again showed no such tendency. This evidence of the importance of perceptions of crime within a small micro-environment is important, but it cannot assess whether such perceptions accurately capture the crime environment of the micro-area, nor whether the crime environment of the broader neighborhood is also important. The present study addresses these limitations.

The Criminology paper was published online in August 2010, and the Social Problems paper is dated August 2011, so I can’t tell if the reviewers for the Social Problems paper had access to a published copy of the first at the time of their review.

If the second paper constitutes a genuine additional contribution, it would be reasonable to publish it separately, making clear that it represents a methodological variation of findings already known. But instead the second paper announces the same contributions as the first. In fact, as the text from the sections titled “summary” in the introduction of both articles show, two out of three of the “important contributions to the literature” are identical:

The third contribution differs. However, by the publication of the second paper, the first two “important contributions” are no longer original (the generally understood meaning of “contribution”).

Later, in the conclusions, the assertions of originality (the “key/crucial implication” and “important takeaway”) are nearly identical. Here are some excepts from the conclusions:

The genuine relationship between the two papers is not revealed.

There is no substitute for reading the text with human eyes. However, there also are tools for displaying and analyzing similarity in documents. The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity provides a reference to the Plagiarism Resource Center (once) at the University of Virginia, which distributes a program called WCopyfind, an open-source Windows-based document comparison tool.

After converting these two articles to text documents, and removing the tables, references, methodological appendix, and extraneous page numbers and other fragments, I subjected them to the WCopyfind comparison. These are the parameters I used, which were recommended for cases in which minor editing is presumed.

Shortest Phrase to Match: 6
Ignore Punctuation: No
Ignore Outer Punctuation: Yes
Ignore Letter Case: Yes
Skip Long Words: No
Most Imperfections to Allow: 0

The analysis found 2,235 words that were in duplicate 6-word strings, accounting for 20% of each article’s text. For example, here are two passages, with the strings that the algorithm flagged in red:

The present study provides an important corrective to the large volume of prior research finding a positive relationship between the size of racial/ethnic minority groups in a neighborhood and the rate of crime at one point in time and assuming that the causal direction runs from the presence of such minorities to higher rates of crime.

Prior research frequently has found a relationship between the presence of racial/ethnic minorities in a neighborhood and the rate of crime at one point in time. Although they sometimes posit different mechanisms, these studies almost always conclude that the causal direction runs from the presence of such minorities to higher rates of crime.

On the one hand, we can see that the passages are more similar than the red text implies, but on the other hand there are times when the algorithm appears to just catch phrases that occur in this line of research, such as “are more likely to move into.” If you set the shortest phrase to 5 words, the program flags 23% of the text; at 10 words it flags 12%.

The nice thing about the program is it creates a side-by-side comparison of the entire documents, with the common text strings linked, so you can click on the text in one article and see where it appears in the other, in context. I have put this side-by-side file here for your perusal. The full articles (behind paywalls) are linked above.

(Odd aside: the Criminology paper is in the first person singular, while the Social Problems paper is written in the first person plural, although both have only one author.)

What is this?

This is not a duplicate paper, although it includes a large amount of copied text, which would normally be called “self-plagiarism,” defined by Miguel Roig like this:

Whereas plagiarism involves the presentation of others’ ideas, text, data, images, etc., as the products of our own creation, self-plagiarism, occurs when we decide to reuse in whole or in part our own previously disseminated ideas, text, data, etc without any indication of their prior dissemination. Perhaps the most commonly-known form of self-plagiarism is duplicate publication, but other forms exist and include redundant publication, augmented publication, also known as meat extender, and segmented publication, also known as salami, piecemeal, or fragmented publication. The key feature in all forms of self-plagiarism is the presence of significant overlap between publications and, most importantly, the absence of a clear indication as to the relationship between the various duplicates or related papers.

Thinly-sliced “salami” articles do not necessarily include any duplication, but rather just tiny increments of scientific progress. There is some of that here, as well as elements of a “meat extender” case, in which small amounts of additional data or analysis are added — without a transparent disclaimer and rationale. However, regardless of the differences in analysis, the texts — especially the framing and concluding bread around the salami — are too similar to be justified.

That last distinction in Roig’s definition, the “key feature,” is what’s important here. Using a little boilerplate theoretical language in related work, or a very similar equation or description of variables when using the same datasets, doesn’t undermine the value of the work, as long as the original source is attributed. This distinction appears in a Nature news story:

…although the repetition of the methods section of a paper is not necessarily considered inappropriate by the scientific community, “we would expect that results, discussion and the abstract present novel results”, says Harold Garner, a bioinformatician at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

There are in fact some “novel results” in the second paper, but the novelty is not as important as the basic findings, which are described nearly identically — as original in both cases.

In the normal course of pursuing a research agenda across multiple article-length publications, some repetition is justifiable and even helpful. But without a “a clear indication as to the relationship between the various duplicates or related papers,” in Roig’s words, the sandwich is not kosher.

Consider an alternative example, in an economics paper, “Booms, Busts, and Divorce,” by Judith Hellerstein and Melinda Morrill, which I wrote about recently. Their main contribution is the finding that divorce was pro-cyclical from 1976 to 2009 – that is, there was more divorce when the economy grew. The “main analysis” is this:

we combine data on state-by-year unemployment rates with state-by-year vital statistics data across the United States over the period 1976 to 2009. We assess the impact of local macroeconomic conditions on state-level divorce rates, controlling for year fixed effects, state-specific time trends, and state-specific time-invariant determinants of divorce rates.

But they then add this:

Our basic finding of pro-cyclical divorce is robust to alternative empirical specifications and is found when we allow the effect of unemployment rates on divorce to vary by the fraction of the population that is Catholic … the census region, and by time period. We also show that this finding is robust to extending our unemployment series back to 1970 … Finally, we replace the unemployment rate at the state-by-year level as our measure of macroeconomic conditions with two alternative measures: state-by-year per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and state-by-year per capita income.

Each of those different steps is a way of extending and corroborating the “main analysis,” and each required adding data from a different source and conducting a new statistical analysis. But they did not make the main finding a new discovery warranting an additional publication with the same motivation and conclusions as the first.

Look at me

To head off an inevitable question, you are welcome to look at my own publication record. There are two specific cases in which my co-author Matt Huffman and I wrote pairs of articles addressing similar questions. They were: whether variation in gender segregation across labor markets affected patterns of gender wage devaluation (here and here); and whether the presence of female managers is associated with lower levels of gender inequality (here and here).

In each case the later paper acknowledged the earlier (or, they acknowledged each other, in the first pair), and explained the differences in approach — they involved different kinds of data and statistical methods in each case as well. The results were consistent in each pair, and thus the conclusions were strengthened, the pattern corroborated. Maybe we could have combined each pair into one very dense article, but that might very well have been rejected as too long or complicated for the journals we used, and they weren’t ready at the same time. (For what it’s worth, I also checked the WCopyfind comparison between the latter pair of our articles, and found 37 words in matched strings of 6 words or more.)

What to do

There is considerable research on the problem of duplicate publication in the medical literature, as Nature reports about 0.4% of articles in MedLine are probable duplicates. I don’t know how widespread the various kinds of duplication are in the social sciences. I can’t say this is a rampant problem, or that this case is an extreme one — I don’t know.

However, based on what I have read and shown above, I’m satisfied this case is a problem the likes of which we should try to avoid.

First, however, we should consider this kind of problem in the context of the “cycle of publication overproduction,” in which the Academy finds itself. That’s the phrase from a report by Diane Harley and Sophia Krzys Acord, “Peer review in academic promotion and publishing: its meaning, locus, and future,” published by Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley. They write:

…the problems we face in scholarly communication are not about publishing, per se, or the process of peer review in that system. Instead, the problems lie with the current advancement system in a multitude of higher education sectors globally that increasingly demand unrealistic publication requirements of their members in lieu of conducting thorough and context-appropriate institutional peer review, at the center of which should be a close reading and evaluation of a scholar’s overall contributions to a field in the context of each institution’s primary mission.

And one of their first recommendations is: “Encourage scholars to publish peer-reviewed work less frequently and more meaningfully.”

While we’re working on that, I have more immediate suggestions for four stages of the publication process.
  • Journal peer review. A large survey of peer reviewers found that, in the social sciences, about 88% believe ensuring acknowledgement of previous work should be one of the purposes of peer review, but only 59% believe the system is current able to do so. The editors and associations in this case – Criminology (the American Society of Criminology) and Social Problems (the Society for the Study of Social Problems) — or others have an incentive to prevent this waste of their resources. Editors and reviewers must be told when highly similar work exists, obviously, and the current ethics statement for American Sociological Review states that “Significant findings or contributions that have already appeared (or will appear) elsewhere must be clearly identified.” But in one concrete step to strengthen that, we could require that referenced work that has not been published — in press, under review, forthcoming, etc. — be accompanied by access to the papers, so the editors can look for redundancy. As it is, these papers are not available to reviewers or editors for verification.
  • Promotion committees and administrators. Counting up articles, and weighting them according to journal prestige or impact factor, is widely practiced in promotion decisions. Really reading the work is much better, but it requires more time, and more specialized skill. The Harley and Acord report has some great systemic recommendations. But in the meantime one thing I might start doing when reviewing cases is to ask myself, “Could any of these articles have been shaved into multiple salami slices?” If they could, but weren’t, let’s give credit for that decision (even if the work wasn’t in a top journal).
  • Ethics guidelines. The American Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics prohibits publishing “data or findings that they have previously published elsewhere.” However, the plagiarism provision only mentions “another person’s” work. The “self-plagiarism” (or duplication) aspect of this should be beefed up.
  • Shorter articles. Thin slices of salami are not so distasteful when eaten without a full load of bread and condiments. Sociology journals tend to have long articles compared with some other social sciences (psychology, economics, public health). If one of the two articles in this case could have been published as a brief report, with a few references and a clear emphasis on what was new, that might be reasonable. In many cases, the copying is in the theory, literature review, and methods. I know I just said we publish too much as it is, but sometimes shorter articles would help with this problem.
Addendum: Why?

Why would I write this and make it public? I certainly have nothing personal against John Hipp, whom I hardly know. But part of the privilege of having tenure protection is that the fear of offending people shouldn’t prevent me from speaking up on issues I think are important, and I am worked up about this issue. Academia has the unrivaled privilege of policing itself, and we have built a system that runs on trust, believe it or not.

I have done a few promotion reviews since I’ve been tenured, and reviewed many journal articles (more than 70 in the past 7 years). I have evaluated hundreds of job candidates and thousands of graduate student applications. Maybe it’s too much to hope that academia will abandon its addiction to bean-counting in the evaluation of productivity and merit any time soon. But we can increase our sensitivity to the flaws of that approach, and promote the honesty and transparency that are prerequisites for its functioning.

These are some other interesting sites and pages on these issues:


Filed under Me @ work, Research reports

Charles Murray on his propaganda playing field

I have some notes on Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart, and the reactions to it, for a would-be essay. Since I haven’t read the book yet, I’m not ready to write that essay, but there are some things you can say without reading the book. Maybe this will be handy or interesting for those who operate in the faster information lanes.

First, remember who we’re dealing with: Murray is not a scholar doing (peer reviewed) research to advance our collective understanding of social life. He is a political propagandist. So we can hold him responsible primarily for the consequences of his work rather than its scientific veracity (which does require reading the book). He works for the American Enterprise Institute, a charitable-in-the-legal-sense front for corporate interests, which launders the tax-free contributions of its donors — a who’s-who of right-wing elites — to create “expert” opinion that in turn shapes and justifies the actions of government leaders.

Of course, they are not alone in this, but they are leaders of the form. This is from their latest annual report:

By treating their representatives as legitimate experts we play into their diabolical schemes.

Stop the presses

In addition to wasting everyone’s time in Congress, AEI is also very effective at promoting their representatives’ work in the media — where hardly anyone does more than mention AEI in passing. Murray’s book has been reviewed not once, but twice in the New York Times. And AEI achieved a near-perfect placement record among the Times‘s top columnists, including David Brooks (“I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important”) and Ross Douthat (“brilliant”), Paul Krugman (“the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback”), and Nicholas Kristoff (“he’s right to highlight social dimensions of the crisis among low-skilled white workers”). The latter two are critical, too, but not enough to overcome the adage about publicity. (The Times also ran a good roundup by Thomas Edsall.)

The marketing campaign includes, naturally, advance bashing of sociologists, the small corner of academia that did the best job of debunking his last big book, The Bell Curve. “I am sure there are still sociology departments where people would cross themselves if I came into the room,” he smirked to the Chronicle of Higher Education. But in that article, sociologist Dalton Conley is quoted as calling Murray, “probably the most influential social-policy thinker in America” (before offering some critical comments as well).

As Anne Coulter might say, though, “our sociologists” aren’t so bad. Brad Wilcox, for example, has joined the fawning chorus at the Wall Street Journal (which previewed the book), declaring we (Whites) are “a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness … The scope and cost of government grows, and liberty withers, when the family breaks down.”

Like old times

Like Newt Gingrich, Murray uses the looming specter of Black pathology to whip up apocalyptic fears among Whites (while somehow convincing some people he’s not a racist because he describes “America” with data on Whites). The two were anti-welfare soul-mates in the 1990s, when Murray wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal called “The Coming White Underclass” (10/29/93), which was a preview of Coming Apart.

He wrote then:

Every once in a while the sky really is falling, and this seems to be the case with the latest national figures on illegitimacy… now the overall white illegitimacy rate is 22%. The figure in low-income, working-class communities may be twice that. How much illegitimacy can a community tolerate? Nobody knows, but the historical fact is that the trendlines on black crime, dropout from the labor force, and illegitimacy all shifted sharply upward as the overall black illegitimacy rate passed 25%. … But the brutal truth is that American society as a whole could survive when illegitimacy became epidemic within a comparatively small ethnic minority. It cannot survive the same epidemic among whites.

For what it’s worth, the “illegitimacy” rate is 41% nationally, and 29% for non-Hispanic Whites. And, of course, the crime rate is through the … floor. So, look to him for reliable predictions about whether “American society as a whole [can] survive” at your own risk.

His solutions then, in addition to zeroing out welfare for single mothers, included dropping the sentimental attachment to letting people raise their own children:

Those who prattle about the importance of keeping children with their biological mothers may wish to spend some time in a patrol car or with a social worker seeing what the reality of life with welfare-dependent biological mothers can be like.

This is a very partial rundown. Feel free to add your own links in the comments.


Filed under In the news