Friday, February 13, 2009

ROTO Nasties - the paralysis of analysis

The Thinker. Academic reports without action - the paralysis of analysis
- photo by Douglas O'Brien, Creative Commons

by Gregory Saville

I was thinking about what folks have said to these posts (thanks everyone for such great comments!) It brought to mind the LA Times article by J. Q. Wilson about inconclusive poverty/crime research. Yet I still can't shake one nagging question: How does our inability to precisely nail down the cause for crime excuse our inaction? I get that we don't want unintended consequences to our actions. Yes, that makes sense. It does make one wonder; What is state-of-the-art in research? So I did a bit of my own research to find out. Here's what I found.


Wilson incidentally is pretty pleased with LAPD's crime mapping and their aggressive policy of searching people on the streets for guns! (No surprise. He's one of the pioneers of the approach in a theory called "broken windows".)

That's not such a bad thing, really. Especially if it makes things better! But notice how aggressive policing is so easily used to explain crime reductions, whereas tackling poor neighborhoods needs more study! That sounds like a double standard to me. Is the "science" for aggressive policing and crime mapping better than the science about poverty/crime?

Not - pardon the gun-pun - by a long shot.

Read Hsieh and Pugh's 1993 article in Criminal Justice Review, "Poverty and income inequality are each associated with violent crime". Or read Kennedy's 1998 study in Social Science and Medicine. What does he conclude? "Studies have shown that poverty and income are powerful predictors of homicide and violent crime."

Are we to believe THAT research isn't good enough yet the crime mapping/zero tolerance research IS good enough?


Then I came across a book by Stan Lieberson from Harvard, Making It Count, Leiberson says that although most social research is non-experimental many researchers treat their data as though it was experimental. Why does it matter? It matters because social science data gets turned into numbers and then chopped and diced and served up as proof of this or that. It is all about counting the numbers. And that, Lieberson says, is part of the problem. Just look at J. Q. Wilson's numbers in the LA Times article.

For me, Lieberson hits a chord:
"There is a double standard used by academics in that evidence supporting an undesirable conclusion or theory is subjected to much tougher standards than evidence supporting other conclusions."

In other words, it seems convenient to trash the poverty/crime link because stats seem inconclusive. It seems simpler to support a get-tough, broken windows theory with zero tolerance enforcement. To be fair, I know LAPD uses other methods too. I also have seen how competent problem-oriented policing paired with updated training methods does make a big difference. Getting the guns off the streets too will help. I agree we should do more of all those things. Those things produce some good short term results.

But we mustn't stop there. Ultimately we must deal with the dysfunctional roots growing in deprived neighborhoods, neighborhoods where gang breeding and violence is cultivated in a bed of broken families and poverty. Those too are the broken windows that need fixing.

Social research is always done in a muddy social world where nothing lends itself to clean, experimental, laboratory tests. If we wait for definitive answers we'll wait forever.


J. Q. Wilson should be applauded for heading up a National Academy of Sciences Committee on Law and Justice to look for more answers. But pleeeeese let's not bury the obvious in yet more academic reports. Doing yet more research on the obvious won't change anything. We DO know what's going on there. Let's get going to help neighbors to change it!

True, ignoring research findings isn't wise. But so is more ROTO - Research-On-The-Obvious! ROTO has lots of nasties, like the unintended consequence of hold-backs from government funding while we wait for "conclusive" answers. Or worse; misdirection of funding onto band-aids like zero-tolerance enforcement.