Saturday, September 12, 2015

Bill James

Bill James, in his book POPULAR CRIME: REFLECTIONS ON THE CELEBRATION OF VIOLENCE, says a lot of provocative things, and some of them don’t make sense. And some of them have nothing to do with crime. After he said that top-level environmentalists routinely exaggerate the threat of things like global warming, I looked him up on Wikipedia to see if he has said anything else absurd. It didn’t take me long to find one (actually three): James defended Joe Paterno’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky incident(s), saying alternately that Paterno didn’t try to cover up Sandusky’s crimes, that it wasn’t Paterno’s responsibility to turn Sandusky in, and that he (James) didn’t think it unusual for grown men like Sandusky to shower with young boys, and so there was nothing shady or suspect for Paterno to have been suspicious about.

You would think that someone who says such ridiculous things would be wrong on most everything else, but I think James is often right in POPULAR CRIME. Still, for someone who parades himself around as a firm believer in common sense, in saying when the Emperor has no clothes, he sometimes just seems to come out of left field. And yes, that is an apt metaphor, because this is the Bill James famous for inventing Sabermetrics, a statistical analysis of baseball that purports to predict everything a baseball fan needs to know, which makes you wonder how bookies can still make a living, but somehow they do.

While James ignores facts when addressing things like Global Warming and Paterno, he does his best to ground other observations firmly in fact, although he doesn’t really use many statistics. Sabermetrics purports to take the aggregate of everything you can measure about a ballplayer and magically yield an absolute measure of that ballplayer’s worth to his team. I am not even a baseball fan, and I can see that this is a fool’s errand. How do you measure the stolen bases not stolen because a pitcher has a great pick-off move? How do you measure how many homers a number three batter hits because other teams can’t pitch around him, since the batter in the four spot is even a greater slugger than he is? How do you measure the ability of some players to elevate not only their own games come the playoffs, but those of their teammates?

You can’t, anymore than you can find an algorithm to choose the MVP. James loves those stats, though, and he puts put forth a system of scoring at trials that will regularize things by assigning points based on probabilities about different factors he deems indicative of a claimant’s guilt. He argues that this is a less hit–and-miss approach than we have now. He also says he realizes it is not workable. But he nevertheless presents it. What he doesn’t really address is the fact that the assignment of “points” is just as open to interpretation and abuse as the present system. Still, he does a good job of pointing out that the present system gets sidetracked by lawyers and legislators (who are often the same thing), so that truth and justice become casualties.

He also claims that seeing the problem of crime through the liberal/conservative binary, where the alternatives are (conservative) longer and harsher sentences or (liberal) a focus on prisoner’s rights that gives hardened criminals sentences that are too easy and short, misses the point. His solution is to focus on crime at its inception, and not when the criminals are so inured to the “life” you can’t reach them. Kind of like Giuliani did in NYC with his “zero tolerance” policy. Crack down on the little stuff and the big stuff won’t happen. I don’t know if that really works, or if it is just supported by statistics, which can be used to lie just as well as anything else, and maybe better, as they give the illusion of being sacrosanct. Still, James is wrestling with a huge problem, and he tries.

Somehow I think that allowing statistical analysis into the courtroom will result in the same kind of problem you have now in criminal insanity cases—experts contradicting each other. Even if you get the numbers right, you have to interpret what they mean, and that is a lot less cut and dried than the numbers themselves. Hence Mark Twain: “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

James doesn’t do much to analyze what relation Popular Crime--books, movies, TV, radio and newspaper and magazine articles—has with the popular culture that consumes it. You have the crime itself, sure, but what of our reaction to it? And how does that reaction become part of the culture popular media is trying to describe? What crime do we focus on, and in what way? Is public opinion driven by media coverage or the other way around? James doesn’t say, although he raises the questions. He does say some things, and some of them are interesting. He says that for different reasons the yellowest of the yellow journalism about crime started in the Gilded Age and ended with the Lindbergh kidnapping. It was largely a product of the penny press. He says a kind of yellow journalism reasserted itself with the case of OJ Simpson. He is mute on the question of whether our lurid obsession with crime increases the likelihood of that kind of crime being committed.

He’s got a lot of interesting stuff to say about American History, even if he doesn’t back it up with statistics. He depicts the early 20th century as a time when we were close to a civil war between the haves and the have nots. This is why we were fascinated with stories like The Stanford White Murder and Sacco and Vanzetti. He says Sacco and Vanzetti were not choirboys, but probably not guilty. James enthusiastically approves of the Palmer Raids, but at the same times condemns the rich of the Gilded and Progressive era for acting like pigs.

All interesting stuff. He points out that until 1980, there was no real concept of “serial killer”—those who repeatedly kill strangers—the received wisdom being that murderers always killed someone they knew. He says police forces were not always professional, and once, long ago, were even sometimes composed of guys who had prison records. James admits that the media can ruin trials, and he also takes to task those jurists who allow defense team motions to withhold evidence. And he says on balance that we are better off with an unfettered press than with a judiciary and bar acting in secret, since lawyers and judges have their own agendas, and those agendas don’t always coincide with justice. Yeah, Bill, but the media are always looking out for us, right?

One thing James doesn’t address is what I would call the folklore of crime. I read somewhere that kids are in no more danger today than they ever were, and that hitchhiking is no more dangerous than taking the bus! I would have liked to see old Bill look at this kind of thing more. What kind of political and social agendas are advanced when you have everyone thinking things are more dangerous now than in some golden long ago? James also doesn’t address gun control, the militarization of the police, the use of police to crush political dissent, and what it must be like to be a cop when everyone has a smart phone with a camera. James does say that Manson and the Symbionese Liberation Army helped sound the death knell of “The Movement.” No one can really say, but that’s an interesting thesis.

Where James is at his best is in digesting all the books there are on a particular crime and coming up with a convincing argument about the guilt or innocence of those convicted or exonerated. Here is a run-down of those cases he analyzes with convincing skill:

  • Sam Shepard—innocent (and the inspiration for a great TV show in THE FUGITIVE)
  • John and Patsy Ramsey—innocent
  • Bruno Hauptmann—guilty
  • Lizzie Borden—innocent (in spite of the gimmick in the TV movie wherein Elizabeth Montgomery commits the crime naked to avoid getting blood on her clothes)
  • Sacco and Vanzetti—not guilty but still not very nice guys
  • OJ Simpson—guilty
  • Albert DeSalvo (who claimed he was the Boston Strangler)—innocent, but still a scumbag
  • Leo Frank—innocent (and a victim of Anti-Semitism)
  • Rabbi Fred Neulander—can’t tell, but not enough evidence to convict

James sounds a familiar note when he takes on the insanity defense, calling the traveling psychologists who testify for a price whores, and stating that Dan White and the infamous Twinkie Defense were the death knell of that defense. He also points out that a lot of serial murderers had prostitutes for mothers, are usually perceived as failures by themselves and those around them, and most often have trouble rubbing two nickels together (how do you find stats on those things?) Finally, and this is very interesting, as well as disturbing, James says serial killers usually don’t have a clear or identifiable motive for what they do, in spite of what profilers might say.

One other thing I would have liked him to address: Are police profilers charlatans? Not psychics-- we know they are charlatans. But are profilers nothing more than puffed up fortune tellers, feeding suggestive but basically empty predictions to a credulous audience? I suspect they are but would have liked to see an intelligent discussion about it.
Some more interesting contentions—murder rates in the US shot up between 1840 and 1885, and have yet to go back down. Motive, means and opportunity don’t count for much, as you can find tons of people in most cases who have all three. At one time the names of jurors were made public, they were routinely bought off by crooked lawyers, and rich bail jumpers were routinely allowed to escape justice by jumping bail.

James addresses the question of popular crime and culture by not addressing it when he says “crime stories embody the unusual, not the normal, and despite that they seem much the same across borders and centuries, and thus tell us more about human nature than the vicissitudes of culture.” That’s a pretty soft and squishy statement for a statistics man. All vague abstractions. What is this similarity in crime stories across cultures? And why does he oppose human nature to culture? Can’t the study of culture tell us anything about human nature, even withstanding those nasty and ill-defined vicissitudes? Bill is a big proponent on rating things on a scale of one to ten. I give him a 6.5 for this book.

© 2015 Mike Welch

1 comment:

  1. I think he's right: Hard to believe Global Warming is going to drown us all when environmentalists have been exaggerating everything for at least 50 years -- since I began covering utility hearings in the late 1960s for the LA Times. I clearly remember how the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was going to destroy the entire Alaskan tundra and wipe out the wildlife. Environmentalists threatened the first shipment of oil from the pipeline with bombs. Research now proves that pipeline sharply boosted the wildlife all around it. Fear has always ruled over fact.