Sinister Bigotry

On Tuesday, a headline graphic above the Wall Street Journal’s masthead read, “The Power of Lefties.” Naturally, being a proud lefty myself, I turned immediately to page D1 where I was slapped in the face with this headline: “The Health Risks of Being Left-Handed.”

Sidebar: If any business but a newspaper had been so misleading, this would have been an instance of illegal bait-and-switch.

I have read a great deal about the health hazards of left-handedness: the worst, IMHO, is the tendency of a left-handed driver to swerve into on-coming traffic in an emergency, rather than to the right, out of harm’s way. But there’s also a huge risk of cutting yourself when you use a knife (which you have to use with your right hand because of the bevel on the blade, which is right-biased).

The WSJ article claimed, however, that lefties face a greater risk of ADHD, dyslexia, and even schizophrenia than right-handed people. Supposedly, “researchers” have conducted statistical studies to this effect and have also concluded that lefties have 10% lower IQs than righties. They claim the only possible cause of the disease of left-handedness is pre-birth trauma to mothers, who apparently suffer from surges of nasty chemicals in their systems. “Proof” of this comes from studies of identical twins who do not share the same “handedness.”

One such pair of identical twins are my maternal aunts. I have always attributed their divergent brain wiring to the original split of the embryo, which produced what my mother called “mirror twins.” I guess that idea is beneath modern “scientists.”

As for dyslexia, the fact is that I do believe it is related to left-handedness. When I was first learning to read and write, I wrote backwards and had a very hard time reading words with certain letter combinations. For instance, I remember that the word “scissors” baffled me, and it took me forever to figure out the difference between p’s and q’s. Once I realized that the rest of the world read in a different direction than I did, I was able to sort it out. However, to this day I can write backwards like Leonardo da Vinci, and I can also write upside down and backwards simultaneously with both hands. (I guess that makes me either an idiot savant or schizophrenic or both.)

As for the IQ of lefties, anyone who’s left-handed will tell you that he or she has never met another left-handed person who wasn’t brighter and more creative than average. Please don’t forget that our current president is left-handed and so is Bill Clinton. Tell them that the Bush righties are 10% smarter than they are.

Ancient Bias Against the Sinister Side

The word “sinister” derives from the Latin word for the left side. A “bar sinister” on a medieval coat of arms indicated that the owner was descended from a nobleman’s bastard son. I’ve been told by someone who has lived in Moslem countries that it is taboo to use one’s left hand in public, especially for eating, because the left hand is supposed to be used only for certain filthy, self-maintenance tasks.

I  have just completed a novel set in 1929, the Year of the Stock Market Crash, tentatively titled Snow Ghost, in which the protagonist is a left-handed typesetter. She explains to another character that parents and teachers often try to force a left-handed child to change hands, because left-handedness is highly suspect, not healthy, and improper. When I wrote that, I thought contemporary readers would be surprised to learn that left-handedness was once so despised. Foolish me.

Now Available: The protagonist of The Juror Hangs, Iris Ginge, is also left-handed. Now available on the Kindle, iPad on the iBookstore, as well as the Nook and the Sony Reader.

More about Transgender Murder Statistics

I love America because, as we used to say when I was a kid, “it’s a free country.” We are free to live our lives as we choose–as long as what we choose doesn’t harm other people. We also are free to think what we wish. There are no “thought police” yet. We are free to express our opinions (within limits).

Statistics aren’t opinions, though. Statistics are the mathematical analyses of data. And data are facts. When we cite statistics to support our opinions, we should do so responsibly–making every effort to be sure the data we cite are real and the statistics based on those data are properly calculated.

In academic writing (as opposed to blogging and journalism) we are required (by peer reviewers) to cite our sources specifically and accurately. It is improper to refer to vague, general “recent studies” or “one source.” Journalists can claim to have confidential sources, I suppose, but it really doesn’t seem right to me to have confidential statistical sources.

I can’t find any “recent study” that says that “1 in 12 transgender persons is murdered.” I can find a transgender activist who has made an honest effort to collect transgender murder statistics, but even she admits that data are hard to come by because there is really no way to know how many transgender persons there are or to identify all murder victims who are transgender. A Florida woman named LeAnna Bradley and an organization called Stop Hate Now cite 321 such murders worldwide between 1970 and 2004 (34 years).

On the other hand, someone has claimed that Kay Brown, instructor for “20th Century Transgender History and Experience” at the Harvey Milk Institute in San Francisco, Washington Blade, Dec. 10, 1999, is the source of the “1 in 12” statistic. But if you Google the Brown article, you can’t find any such statistic in the article (at least I couldn’t).

Let’s think about this a minute. What is the value of inventing or inflating statistics about a very highly-emotionally-charged issue? Frankly, it fans the flames of irrationality. No one benefits from this.


Slippery Numbers in Juvenile Justice—Graham v. Florida

Yesterday I heard Lisa Bloom on TruTV’s “Best Defense with Jamie Floyd” argue against juvenile “L-WOP” (Life Imprisonment Without Parole”) partly because she feels too many people are jailed for too long these days. To support the argument she claimed that 1 in 100 Americans are now incarcerated. She also argued that juveniles ought not to be sentenced to life imprisonment without chance of parole on grounds that our “changing standards of decency” make such a punishment “cruel and unusual.”

The weird thing is, for once I actually agree with much of what Ms. Bloom said, but since in the past I have found her to be statistically challenged I decided to check up on that 1% statistic.

Guess what? She is off by over 300%. In 2007 the number of Americans who were then incarcerated topped 3.2% (7 million adults). Ms. Bloom need not be ashamed: she is not the only lawyer with numerical dyslexia, nor is she the only American who is numerically challenged. I am, too, and I’m not even a lawyer.

  • We definitely have an incarceration problem in this country, and it is getting worse all the time. It is one of the problems threatening to bankrupt us. I suspect that the largest group of convicts are doing time for drug-related offenses, and if we stopped incarcerating people for simple possession we would do ourselves a great favor.
  • Worse yet, too many juveniles have contact with the prison system, not only as a result of being sentenced as adults but also as a result of visiting their convict parents in prison. I simply don’t understand how a family-court judge can “sentence” a child to visitation in a jail, but that is a topic for a separate blog article.

But I digress: Ms. Bloom’s topic was Graham v. Florida.

My topic is the way lawyers (including judges) throw around statistics in court extremely casually.

Take a look at the oral arguments in yesterday’s Graham v. Florida case. Graham’s attorney Bryan S. Gowdy argued that L-WOP had only been given to 30 juveniles in 6 states, thus proving his argument that L-WOP is so rare it is “cruel.” Chief Justice Roberts pointed out to him  that 38 states allow juvenile L-WOP (proving it isn’t rare at all). Gowdy corrected the Chief Justice: “30.” The Chief Justice persisted in saying it is 38 or 39, but also pointed out that 30 out of 50 is still “the vast majority.”

I am not a lawyer, but if I were and if I was arguing before the Supreme Court I certainly would not try to distort the numbers the way Mr. Gowdy did. I’m also very glad that the justices of the Supreme Court seem to have a better grasp of numbers than most lawyers.

  • The Supreme Court only recently began making transcripts of oral arguments available online on the day of the argument. The Graham v. Florida oral arguments make strangely fascinating reading. I’m struck by the rhetoric of this particular courtroom drama: it looks to me as if Mr. Gowdy completely misjudged his audience.
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I just don’t get this whole death-penalty thing

After hearing the 911 call of Denise Lee, I concluded that if anyone ever deserved the death penalty it was Michael King. I even entertained a scenario where I might be on a jury and might be able to vote for capital punishment. After all, if the law asked me whether I felt a Michael King deserved mercy, I would definitely say, “No.” Few killers I can think of would deserve anything but punishment.

What good comes of an execution?

But after listening to his family and friends testify in the penalty phase of the trial, once again I find that I can see no good coming of a death-penalty for this monster or for anyone else. Absolutely no good.

The family and friends of a murderer are as innocent as his victim and his victim’s family and friends. King’s son will have to grow up and live with the knowledge that he loved a monster. His parents have to live with the knowledge that their son caused great suffering – they raised him, they did what they thought was right, and they failed their son and society. His brother feels guilty for a snow-mobile accident that permanently damaged King’s brain; he clearly feels as if his brother would never have become a murderer but for that accident.

Yesterday an older brother and his wife testified about the normal, average-American family life of the murderer. They smiled and laughed nervously about memories of family gatherings. (Ashleigh Banfield was appalled, while I was greatly saddened. As usual, I reacted about 180-degrees differently than most people, I guess.)

“Flat affect” versus “Disassociated affect”

Throughout the trial, TV commentators (lawyers) remarked on King’s “flat affect.” I believe they misused that psychological term. In King’s eyes throughout the guilt phase of the trial I saw anger and despair. Today a psychologist confirmed my opinion, saying that King was doing what anyone would do when confronted with the horror of what he had done—he was zoning out.

“Flat affect” is something else all together. It is the emotionless face of a sociopath, a person who feels no emotions. King clearly feels sorry for himself.

If the King defense claims this killer was insane when he committed the crime, they will be making a big mistake. In my opinion that can only anger the jury, especially after they did not put on an insanity defense during the guilt phase of the trial. I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t plead insanity after hearing this testimony. People can have periodic psychotic episodes. King clearly has a history of brain damage and inexplicable behavior. I don’t think an insanity defense would have  produced a not-guilty verdict, but it might have prepared the way for a jury recommendation of life imprisonment.

Vengeance Is Mine, Saith the Lord

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, believe it or not, individual revenge is not justified. We do not believe in “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (Apparently Islam does, and in Saudi Arabia, therefore, they chop off thieves’ hands.) Vengeance is the right only of the Lord. Justice does not occur in life.

The families of murder victims often think they will “get closure” when a murderer is executed. They are sadly deluded. Revenge is angry. Anger wounds the person who feels the anger. Denise Lee’s family will only hurt themselves more if they do indeed watch Michael King’s execution. It will only bring back the pain of Denise’s death. They need to let go of their anger now. Her killer was caught and found guilty.

What Good Does the Death Penalty Do?

I was pleased yesterday when TruTV debated the death penalty. It confirmed my belief that many lawyers believe that forensic science is infallible and that there is no longer any chance that an innocent person can be executed. (I will write more about this latter.)

One commentator claimed that America has more psychotic, evil killers than other countries, and that is why European countries do not have the death penalty. What nonsense. Please look at this Wikipedia page on worldwide murder rates. If I could get lawyers to quit throwing around specious statistics to prove their points, I would feel as if I had accomplished something with this blog.

The death penalty does not serve to deter crime (especially against law-enforcement, women, and children). All it does is tell society that killing is acceptable. The death penalty does not ensure that killers will not be able to kill again, any more effectively than life imprisonment does. The death penalty costs society far more than life imprisonment does. The death penalty clogs our appeals courts. The death penalty takes so many years to be “executed” that it doesn’t even necessarily shorten the life of a murderer.

The death penalty is just another horror.

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Could“Clark Rockefeller’s” Ex Have Gotten Him Some Help?

I’m amazed at the number of talking-head commentators and bloggers who blame the victim in the Boston trial of the so-called “Fake Rockefeller.” People are saying his ex-wife couldn’t possibly have been as ignorant as she claims: she’s too smart, too well-educated, and they were married for too long.

Even defense expert witness, psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow said on the stand that he “wished” the defendant had been married to someone who at some point urged him to get help. This testimony strikes me as very, very strange. I can’t quite figure out whether Dr. Ablow was saying something he thought would help his clients or would hurt the opposition. I can’t accept that a psychiatrist believes a whacko can’t deceive a normal person (that is, a non-psychologist).

Age does bring wisdom, because wisdom is the product of experience. It’s one of the few consolations of aging.

At my age, I can honestly say I’ve known several truly delusional individuals. And a large subset of those people lied through their teeth—consistently—for many, many years—and completely fooled me for most of the time I knew or have known them.

Sidebar: You’ve probably heard about several ways liars unconsciously reveal their lies. These include perspiration (lie-detectors), voice stress, body language, neuro-linguistic programming, and even “micro-expressions.” I hope you’re also aware that none of these is accepted as testimony or evidence in a court of law, because these are “arts” not “sciences.” No one and no test can detect every lie, especially when the liar really believes what he’s saying.

I can understand a young person looking at the very put-together, MBA businesswoman whom Clark Rockefeller deceived and saying, “No way.” Until it happens to you, it seems implausible.

But the fact is that delusional people are often very clever and are usually very consistent in the tales they tell. I’ve even known people who lived in a complex web of delusions—sharing some of their personalities and delusions with one group of people and others with other groups of people.

Worse yet, the number of people with mental problems is huge, so it isn’t as if Clark Rockefeller is all that unusual. Yes, I think he’s insane—but I’m not sure whether I would acquit him because of it. I think a high proportion of criminal defendants have some form of mental disorder.

It’s almost a sure thing that right now you know more than one person with very serious problems. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, about 26.1 % of the population “suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.” In 2007 the NIMH found that 9% of the population suffers from “personality disorders.” As I understand a personality disorder, it does not include schizophrenia (an additional 1.1%). So that means that more than 10% of the population may be delusional or suffer from serious hallucinations.

Think of it this way: if 100 people live in your neighborhood, statistics say that over 25 of them have mental problems ranging from mild depression, to panic disorders, to drug addiction, to delusional narcissism (like Clark Rockefeller), to full-blown schizophrenia. In a small town of 1000 people, there likely are 10 schizophrenics who “hear voices.”

The Rockefeller/Gerhardtsreiter Jury

As always, I understand that no jury has an easy decision if the opposing sides both do their jobs properly. In this trial, I’m not at all surprised that the jury is taking its time.

But the last person anyone should blame for the mess is the mother of the child Rockefeller kidnapped. She is to be pitied. When someone you love deceives you cruelly, it is crushing.

The Calculus of Expert Testimony: Trooper Higbee Trial

At last! The prosecution is currently presenting its “computer forensics” witness—the Ford Motor Company engineer who analyzed Trooper Robert Higbee’s vehicle black box. And he’s committing all the rhetorical sins a technical witness can commit in front of a jury (IMHO).

Expert Error No. 1

I’ve said it before, but the worst rhetorical error a technical witness can make is to confuse the jury. In this case, the poor explanation of the black-box data may be the fault of the prosecutor (his choice and sequence of questions, for example), or it may simply be that the expert witness doesn’t have much experience testifying in criminal trials (as defense attorney Subin appears to have pointed out).

In any case, the testimony is belaboring a sub-second by sub-second record of the ups and downs of acceleration and deceleration before what the witness calls “the impact.” I guess this witness didn’t take Freshman Comp 101 in college, so he never learned the value of a thesis statement. Listening to his testimony is like reading the footnotes of an essay before you read the opening paragraph.

Expert Error No. 2

This expert witness is also making a mistake I’ve noticed in other trials, such as the expert in garbage bags in the Melanie McGuire murder trial (also NJ—pure coincidence, I assume). This expert is trying to support the prosecution’s side of the case rather than his own data—and it’s painfully obvious. Attorney Subin is doing a nice job of jumping all over the witness’s biased word choice, such as adjectives that suggest the black box could tell how much pressure the trooper was applying to the brakes. I believe most jurors appreciate an objective expert witness, regardless of the side for which he’s testifying.

Expert Error No. 3 (or is it trick no. 1?)

The expert witness is also irritating me by his loose ranges of numbers. Statistics drawn from data are always subject to a range of “plus or minus,” because statistics are only estimates. We all know this. But the range has to be within a “margin of error” that is reasonable.

There’s always at least a 1% variance because chance is 50:50. Most valid statistical predictions (that is accurate statistics) assume a margin of error of plus or minus 2%. For example, a well-calibrated black box might record a car as traveling 100 miles an hour when it was really traveling 98 miles an hour or 102 miles an hour. At 65 miles an hour the 2% error rate is plus or minus 1.3 mph or 63.7 to 66.3 mph. In fact, don’t all drivers “know” they can speed 5 miles over the limit without being pulled over, because the margin of error for radar devices is about plus or minus 2?

But if I heard correctly, the expert testified that the black box in question had an error rate of minus 2 mph to minus 8 mph at 65 mph. Where’s the plus? Is he saying the black box is calibrated to under-report the vehicle’s speed? And the amount it can be in error varies up to 400%. What good is it, then? And clearly the rate of error lies far outside accepted statistical error rates—especially in a homicide trial.

But this isn’t the greatest rhetorical trick being employed here. The greatest trick is stating that the data representing the “final 20 feet” of the accident are missing, because black-box data is recorded in 2/10ths of a second increments and, at a speed of 100 feet per second, that 2/10ths of a second represents 20 feet.

OK, even this fairly mathematically illiterate former juror can see from the expert’s charts that the car was not traveling at 100 mph when the final data point was collected. That means it’s less than 20 feet—closer to 12 feet, it seems to me.

The Point of Impact

Not to mention that the expert witness identified “the point of impact” in his data as being the point at which the black box ceased to function. That makes no sense. The black box must have operated until the motor (electrical power) cut off. Of course, maybe I missed testimony from mechanics or accident reconstructionists who testified that the power went off on impact. If so, then ignore the rest of what I have to say.

Why should the expert assume that the trooper’s last application of the brakes was the first impact? Didn’t the cars bounce around a bit? What if he applied the brakes before the first impact (as appears to have happened in the data) and then reapplied them during the collision in an attempt to halt the forward motion of the car? Or what if he applied the breaks briefly several feet from the intersection and then again when he first saw the white van to his right?

My point about “the point of impact” is that this expert witness is making many assumptions without considering alternatives. And he seems to me to be doing it because he thinks that’s his job as a prosecution witness.

Prosecution Exhibit s40

The prosecution is presenting a chart to the jury this afternoon which divides the incident into five phases, each with a duration and a distance. Unfortunately, here too there’s an enormous margin of error. For example, the “4th phase” or “braking” phase, is said to have occurred from minus 2.6 seconds to minus 1.6 seconds before impact (again, that mushy deadline) and to have covered from 276 to 166 feet. (I’m assuming the range of feet is the distance the car traveled, that is 110 feet; but the rhetoric is so confusing that it could mean it’s possible the car traveled 276 feet in distance or 166 feet in distance and the 110 feet is variance. Hmmm. Besides, if his calculations are based on 20 feet per second, how could the car have traveled more than 100 feet in a second if it was going under 80 miles per hours?)

In any case, 110 feet is a long way, isn’t it? I thought the “Rules of the Road” said a car should begin braking at 50 feet before a stop sign. If Trooper Higbee hit the brakes 110 feet before the impact, then he was braking well before the stop sign.

CSI: Confusing Scientific Information

If were on the Higbee jury, I’d be hoping one of my fellow jurors understood calculus enough to check this witness’s figures.

What good is served by frightening statistics?

On TruTV this morning, anchor-person Lisa Bloom cited statistics that “1 in 12 transgender persons are murdered.” I found this statistic “incredible,” as legal reporter Beth Karas said. So I quickly searched the web for the source of these statistics.

My first stop, as always, was the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which consolidates statistics from several government agencies. When the BJS did not seem to have murder statistics by victim sexual orientation, I went to the FBI. There I found numerical data on hate crimes.

According to the FBI in 2007 (the most recent year studied), 1, 512 hate crimes were directed at individuals because of their “sexual orientation.” Of those hate crimes, only 5 resulted in the death of the victim.

If you look at prior years’ tables, the number of hate crimes because of sexual orientation per year appear to be tending slightly upwards. That means that the number of homicides of transgender people (not the percentage)  since the time data began to be collected on hate crimes has been very small—much smaller than the number of hate-crime homicides for any other type of bias, especially race.

What I can’t find is a statistical analysis of the category of victim the FBI terms “sexual orientation,” since the FBI tables are broken down into “homosexual,” “male homosexual,” and “female homosexual.”

So, it is impossible for me to say whether or not “1 in 12 transgender persons” (roughly 8% of transgender persons) is murdered or not. But, assuming that transgender persons are a minority of the FBI’s categories, then the number of transgender persons murdered because of their sexual orientation (as opposed to other reasons) is clearly far less than 5 per year.

What’s my point? My point is that I feel it is unwise to stir up panic among any minority group. It does no good for those who may be potential victims of a hate-crime to live in fear—especially when the fears may (and probably are) overblown.

I certainly would urge parents of transgender teens to teach their children well: Every teen is vulnerable to assault; gay, lesbian, and transgender teens are probably especially vulnerable to assault. Teens feel immortal. Their hormones incline them to all sorts of risky behavior.

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Statistics can set you free—urban legends can incarcerate you.

Journalists should be required to take a statistics course. Maybe then we wouldn’t be inundated daily with so many absurd sports stats, political poll results, and crime “urban legends.” Fortunately, somewhere in history, lawyers and judges learned that statistics aren’t evidence and should not be presented to juries.

In the first Phil Spector trial (2007), at least one of his expert witnesses came very close to telling the jury statistics showed that gunshots to the mouth were almost always self-inflicted, but prosecutor Alan Jackson quickly pounced on such statistics as inappropriate testimony.

In Scott Peterson’s trial (2004), the public knew only what journalists told them about the evidence, since no cameras were permitted. So, I don’t know whether statistics were presented to the jury. But journalists repeatedly claimed that “the leading cause of death among pregnant women is homicide by the spouse or significant other.” This was a false statistic, but it condemned Peterson in the public’s eyes (and I assume it made its way into the minds of the jurors, as well).

Statistics are mathematical computations based on data. Like all computations they are subject to error both in the way they are computed and in the data on which they are based (“garbage in, garbage out”). Statistics are also prone to misinterpretation (in science, as well as in journalism). Statistics don’t prove whether or not Lana Clarkson killed herself or whether or not Scott Peterson killed his wife.

Using statistics the way journalists use them is tantamount to relying on stereotypes to identify criminals. The media make gross assumptions about criminals: “mothers kill their children,” “husbands kill their wives,” “gangsters are drive-by killers,” and so on. Statistics may (or may not) exist to support these stereotypes, but that does not mean in every case the killer must fit the stereotype. Yes, Andrea Yates killed her children, but the Ramseys did not kill Jonbenet. Yes, husbands kill their wives, but sometimes a man like Fred Cooper kills another man’s wife who witnesses him killing her husband. Yes, gangsters are often drive-by killers, but sometimes the drive-by killer is a sociopathic Colorado youth pretending he’s Al Pacino in Scarface.

The cops rely extensively on stereotypes to identify criminals. It’s not smart, but it’s understandable—like looking for your lost car keys under the nearest lamp post, even though you know you dropped them several feet away in the dark parking lot. But false stereotypes also often lead the cops in the wrong direction (as in the tragic case of Jessica Lunsford).

Criminal defense attorneys are vigilant against the use of stereotypes in law enforcement—even the use of “criminal profiling” (a questionable investigative tool, IMHO). “Racial profiling” is rightly deemed the equivalent of stereotyping and racism.

The courts exclude statistical evidence, because it’s prejudicial, not probative.

Jurors are human, though. Jurors hold stereotypes. Voir dire is intended to expose juror’s stereotypes, but from time to time an innocent person is convicted because he or she fits a criminal stereotype.

When statistics are misunderstood and abused, the result is stereotyping and urban legends. And even when statistics are understood and properly used, they only tell you about general principles, not specific crimes. Yes, gunshot wounds to the mouth are “usually” self-inflicted; but occasionally a murderer shoots a person in the mouth. Occasionally strange things do happen.

To learn about statistics, I recommend Professor Michael Starbird’s The Teaching Companies course, “Meaning from Data: Statistics Made Clear.” It’s fun as well as informative.

In Lecture 13, “Law—You’re the Jury,” Prof. Starbird shows several misuses of statistics that either have come up in court or could easily come up if the presiding judge isn’t careful.

  • Hit-and-run accident: A witness claims his identification of the offending vehicle as a blue taxi is better than 50% accurate.
  • Firing an employee: A company uses random drug testing, which a fired employee claims is prone to false positive results.
  • College admissions: A woman claims that a college’s admissions policies are discriminatory based on the percentage of women whose applications are accepted versus the percentage of men whose applications are accepted.
  • O.J. Simpson murder trial: Johnny Cochrane’s closing argument claimed that O.J. was an unlikely killer because only 1 in 1,000 wife-beaters kill their wives.
  • Another case involves an interesting misuse of DNA statistics, similar to the misuse in the Joshua Rosa trial.