Thursday, September 27, 2007

Let's not confuse outselves with facts

I am a bit surprised by Paul Soglin's response to John McAdams study on racial disparities in incarceration rates in Wisconsin. I want to think its entirely tongue-in-cheek and not an anti-intellectual refusal to understand what the study was trying to say, but it's a powerful hard thing to do.

First, let's look at the study. This is how Mayor Paul (that's how you address mayors in Madison, right?) sums up the study:

The McAdams report suggests that Milwaukee homicide numbers are within reasonable expectations. In fact more murders can be tolerated. McAdams's methodology changes the way we analysis all crime data including homicides.

But, as Hizzoner must know, the McAdams report does not suggest, imply or even cast a sidelong glance at any such thing. Professor McAdams does not say that the number of homicides in Milwaukee is what we would expect or that it is acceptable. In fact, strictly speaking (always a good thing), the study says nothing about the homicide rate. What he was looking at is disparities in what happens to blacks and whites after a crime has been committed.

In connection with that, he is trying to get under numbers that show that the disparity in black and white incarceration rate is higher here than it is elsewhere. One thing that you need to know in order to assess why that is so is to look at whether the black population here commits crimes at a rate that is higher than elsewhere.

That's not easy to do. If you use conviction and arrest records, you might just be reflecting biases in the system that occur before those stages in the process. So John wonders whether the nature of the black population in Wisconsin differs from those states where the incarceration disparity is lower. He hypothesizes that states where the black population is more likely to be urban and poor may have a larger disparity than in states where it is less likely to be urban and poor. He constructs a model, runs the numbers and - whallah!- there seems to be precisely the correlation that he hypothesized.

This isn't airtight but it is instructive. Maybe what Paul is attacking is the notion that a social scientist might try to control for potential explanatory factors as a way of testing accusations of discrimination. If that's the case, then I shouldn't think he will have many friends on Bascom Hill.

In any event, he is conflating the idea of what those explanatory factors predict with a value judgement about whether the results are acceptable. Studies may show that people with cholestorol in excess of a given number can be "expected" to have a higher incident of heart disease. That doesn't mean that the fact that they have that rate of disease is fine and dandy. But it does tell us that the problem of heart disease might have something to do with cholesterol and not eye color, just as McAdams' numbers suggest that the disparity might be related to something other than racist Badgers.

One possibility is that urban, poor blacks are more likely to commit crimes than non-poor, rural blacks. That's not an outlandish hypothesis. It even scans with some liberal notions about the root causes of crime. Whatever its value, it is not the same as saying that the disparate crime rate can be tolerated.

Another possibility is that poor urban blacks get locked up more often than whites or nonpoor and rural blacks for reasons that have nothing to do with a greater propensity to commit crimes. The numbers suggest that, if this is true, Wisconsin may be no worse than anywhere else but, once again, that's not the same as saying that, for example, nationwide bias against poor blacks in cities is OK.

Professor McAdams acknowledges this second possibility, so he goes on to look at other numbers to see if he can find any evidence of that. I plan to post on that later, but I am really surprised to see this anti-science attitude from a denizen of the Party of Reason.

7 comments:

Xoff said...

McAdams's hypothesis "isn't airtight?"

I'd say it doesn't hold water, either.

My own anti-"intellectual" take is here, if you'll excuse a self-serving plug.

(Those of us who, unlike McAdams, don't have Sykes to promote us need to use every available tool for outreach.)

Rick Esenberg said...

Self-serving plugs are permitted, but, with all due respect, you don't respond to McAdams either. The Wisconsin Sentencing Commission report says there are disparities in some (but not all) elements of the criminal justice system that it studied. John acknowledges the disparities but then tries to explore why they may be greater in Wisconsin than elsewhere and whether they may be explained by factors that are not attributable to bias in the system. He suggests that they may be. I haven't commented on that yet, but neither have you. Paul Soglin's post doesn't even acknowledge his point (in fact it flat out mistates it - in some type of obscure jest, I hope) and yours doesn't even addresses it. McAdams doesn't dispute those disparities, he's arguing about what they mean.

John McAdams said...

It seems that Xoff hasn't even read my article.

Not only do I have a model of racial disparity (which shows Wisconsin to be about where it would be be expected to be) but also a variety of other data.

Xoff doesn't seem to understand that the Sentencing Commission study deals with only a tiny part of the entire criminal justice process, ignoring (for example) who gets arrested, who has charges against them dropped, and how long somebody actually serves in prison.

The liberals look silly when they can't actually address the data.

Jim C. said...

All you need to know about how John McAdams thinks and why he's not a credible academic: "the liberals."

Anonymous said...

Esenberg, did you take on this debate as an intellectual exercise? You're a smart guy...are you just trying to see if you can use your honed legal mind to defend McAdams? Or -- this can't be the reason -- do you agree with and support his "findings?"

Say it ain't so Rick.

Some days I read your stuff and it's a smart lawyer guy take on an important issue facing Milwaukee or Wisconsin and other times I read your stuff and you twist in the wind like crazy Bob Donal (sp?) to support some crazy action by a conservative.

For what it’s worth, stick to being the conservative legal scholar who defends solid conservative thought and not a two-bit right-wing blogger who needs to cheerlead all the other two-bit bloggers.

Rick Esenberg said...

A-9:24 says:

For what it’s worth, stick to being the conservative legal scholar who defends solid conservative thought and not a two-bit right-wing blogger who needs to cheerlead all the other two-bit bloggers.


Are you willing to stay on call to tell me which is which?

Look, when another faculty member at the University that I work for does some research, I take it seriously. I want to read his piece more carefully before I comment further (and I am not a statistician, so there's probably a lot about it that I am not qualified to critique) but the statements made about it by the bloggers I referred to were just flat out wrong.

My guess is that, as most research purports to show, some amount of racial disparity (ranging from a samll to a great amount) can be explained by nonracial factors but anytime you try to isolate racial effects you run into problems because many things that we might regard as nonracial are highly correlated with (i.e., associated with, not necessarily caused by) race.

mickey said...

Rick, I love reading your blog entries and the responses from the left. It seems to me that you are rarely/almost never, intellectually challenged with a rational refutation. You are ad hominemed, gently sometimes, you are told that as a conservative mind, that your position is moot. Either Mark Belling or Charlie Sykes is mentioned, and you are dismissed because they, not you occupy the caring moral high ground.
Rick, I'm laughing hysterically at Anonymous 9:24 who lamely attempts to refute you, without citing anything.......except his anonymous fiat. He tells you how wrong you are, and how much you sound like some other guy he disagrees with, but, he never tells you where you are incorrect factually. He blathers about "crazy" actions by Conservatives, and he finishes by telling you not to be a 2-bit blogger who cheerleads other 2-bit right wing bloggers.
And he supports his opinions with....
NOTHING.
I guess he told you.