Sunday, February 28, 2010

Signal Fails in Attempt to Use, Understand Basic Arithmetic

When not preoccupied with accepting plagiarized submissions or patting its own back, The Signal’s editorial board finds time to show off its dazzling statistical incompetence. TMS’s Sunday editorial[1] is the most recent example. The piece discussed changes in the amount of crime in Santa Clarita between 2008 and 2009, and in doing so implicitly defends three ridiculous conclusions: (1)The non-violent crime of theft is just as important as the violent crimes of rape and murder when calculating our city's crime rates, (2)Year-to-year changes in crime rates are meaningful, and (3)There is no further need to dig into the numbers provided by SCV Sheriff’s Department in order to understand crime in Santa Clarita.

The First Dumb Conclusion: All Crimes are Equal

Our justice system recognizes crimes as being unequal in severity—that’s why you fry in the electric chair for committing first-degree murder while you just get a monetary fine for speeding. This distinction was lost on The Signal’s editorial board members.

In their article, they say “Crime was down by 1.1 percent in the city of Santa Clarita.” The 1.1% value is a meaningless, aggregate statistic that counts larceny the same as it counts rape, that mathematically weights auto-theft as being as important as murder. It was arrived at by adding up all the crimes committed in 2008, all the crimes committed in 2009, and looking at the percent difference.

The problems with this approach are many. But the central problem is that the big statistic used to describe Santa Clarita's overall crime rate means that whether you’ve prevented 10 car thefts or 10 murders, you’ve improved the City’s crime rate by the exact same amount. Of course, we’d all rather live in a city with ten more car thefts per year instead of ten additional murders, but no matter. A crime, whether violent or non-violent, counts exactly the same.

What really happened between 2008 and 2009[2]?

*There were 2 more homicides in 2009 than 2008
*There was 1 more rape in 2009 than 2008
*There was 1 more robbery in 2009 than 2008
*There were 4 more aggravated assaults in 2009 than 2008
*There were 69 more burglaries in 2009 than 2008
*There were 4 more larceny thefts in 2009 than 2008
*There were 13 more incidents of arson in 2009 than 2008
*However, there were 134 fewer auto thefts in 2009 than 2008

Indeed, the one-and-only factor responsible for the claim of a 1.1% decrease in crime in Santa Clarita is a large decrease in the number of vehicular thefts. However, The Signal’s editorial team chose to not to distinguish between types of crime, instead writing rather generically and generously that “Crime was down 1.1 percent in the city of Santa Clarita.” That’s a deliberate misinterpretation of numbers. There were more homicides, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, larcenies, and acts of arson—but on the bright side, fewer cars got stolen. The paper presented these values in an earlier story, but for those who read TMS only on the weekend, this vital decomposition of the data into its constituent parts was missing. If honesty was a priority, the editorial should have read “Seven out of eight classes of crime increased by a few incidents per year between 2008 and 2009, but there was one exception—fewer vehicular thefts occurred in 2009.” Instead, TMS seems not to care whether it’s one less homicide or one less car theft—any reduction in any crime counts the same.

The Second Dumb Conclusion: Year-to-Year Changes in Crime are Meaningful

They’re not. You need far more data points to establish a statistically significant trend[3] in crime reduction, and there are these things called “noise” or “error” that mean random events can cause observed values to diverge from a characteristic trend.

Put simply, no one should be using the ridicuolous 1.1% value or any other single number to suggest how crime in Santa Clarita is changing. But that’s exactly what TMS did. The Signal then shameless fawns over the incumbents, saying they’re “taking a bite out of crime.” Note to The Signal: a 1% change in a meaningless statistic does not a “bite out of crime” make. At least their out-dated cliche drew attention away from their fauly reasoning.

The Third Dumb Conclusion: The Numbers from the Sheriff are Sufficiently Informative

The editorial on crime in Santa Clarita simply parroted numbers provided by the Sheriff's Department. However, the writers could have made these numbers much more interesting by answering a few simple questions. For example:

1.Controlling for population growth, is crime increasing or decreasing?
2. Is there a higher per capita rate of crime inside or outside city boundaries?
3. Are there long-term, statistically meaningful trends in how crime is changing in Santa Clarita?

Instead of pondering what the numbers really mean, the editorial bases its arguments off one really bad, non-controlled, uninteresting statistic. They then take the very embarrassing step of asking readers to ignore the headline they first used to describe crime in Santa Clarita:

"In the near future, you will open your mailbox and there, screaming at you from an obnoxious piece of junk mail, will be Tuesday's Signal headline, 'Crime on the rise in SCV,' complete with the subtext: "2009 saw increase in reports of several serious crimes.' [...] It will be a lie." That's right, the editorial board is saying you shouldn't trust its headlines as they're misleading (even when they're more factual than editorials.) How lucky we are to have such intelligent folks interpreting life in Santa Clarita for us all...and also telling people how to vote.

IHSCV Conclusions:
*The Signal's editorial was an embarrassment that demonstrated no ability to critically evaluate statistics.
*No one, whether Ken Pulskamp, TMS, or the unnamed CC candidate responsible for the mailer should use statistics on annual changes in crime as evidence for trends or accomplishments; they mean very little, except when you can supply other evidence to link cause and effect (ex: the Sheriff's Department's aggressive pursuit of gangs and a corresponding drop in gang-related crimes).
*It's clear that TMS is endorsing the incumbents by lavishing them with undeserved praise--what a surprise. Way to go, editorial board!

[1]Here's the link--I can see why they don't sign editorials such as these.
[2]Here's the source, the SCV Sheriff
[3]Statistical significance has a very precise meaning, which is also lost on TMS. They don't quite grasp that a small change in a value from 2008 to 2009 says very little about the shape of the underlying trend.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Happenings: Gauny and Ferry Will Never Be Friends, KellarGate

Tonight’s City Council meeting featured awards for high school bands, passionate words from a self-described socialist running for Governor, a continuing outpouring of support for Bob Kellar, and David Gauny's accusation that Frank Ferry openly threatened him with an all-out smear campaign.

But it all began with Mayor Weste’s invocation[1]. Her Presidents' Day-inspired remarks reflected on the wisdom and foresight of George Washington.

Mayor Weste, seen presiding over tonight’s meeting, sported freshly cropped hair and a smart floral jacket.

Next, all six of our local high school bands were recognized for competing in the Bands of America Competition. Hart, it seems, won. Councilmembers were quick to embrace the opportunity for awkward banter with students as they came up to the City Seal for photographs. Asked Councilmember Laurie Ender to one small boy “How come the shortest guy plays the tuba?” Councilmember Frank Ferry then reminisced about having “flag-offs” with flag team members, recalling with obvious pride that he “twirled it the best.”

Committee Reports followed the. It was the usual blend of hooray City (for open space), boo State (for letting criminals out of state prisons to help balance the budget), hooray charity events (celebrity waiter dinner).

On the Consent Calendar, two items drew comments. Alan Ferdman came forward to applaud the City for passing (after second-reading) a zoning change ordinance that will allow for a much-needed medical office building to be built in Canyon Country. Ferdman said “It’s been a long time coming.” Larry Mankin was inspired to comment on behalf of local businesses, applauding the City for establishing an Industrial Development Authority that will allow certain types of local businesses to apply for tax-exempt bonds. The money comes from the State, not the City, Weste reassured anxious Claritans.

At 6:41, it was time for Public Participation. Duane Harte was the first of many Claritans to come forward in support of Bob Kellar, who is still the focus of attention for attending an anti-illegal-immigration rally and using the word “racist” in a weird way. Other supporters included Ellen Wright who said that not only was Kellar “a decent man,” but also “a good realtor.”

Somewhere around the middle of the Kellar love-fest, some LA-based immigration activists came forward to have their say. First was Carlos Alvarez, a 23-year-old running for Governor of California and affiliated with the Party for Socialism and Liberation[2]. He delivered his generic, pro-illegal-immigrant speech quite eloquently and with excellent timing and emphasis. But try as he might, his attempt to link Bob Kellar to the Minutemen to the KKK didn’t work out.

Following Alvarez was the rather sad Robert Gittelson, a man who made bold demands with a timid voice and squirmy eye contact. He began by saying that Councilmember Kellar’s words had put the Hispanic community “in some measure of danger, and a large measure of distress.” He told Kellar that his group, the Full Rights for Immigrants Coalition, would not pursue legal action against Kellar if he verbally acknowledged that comprehensive immigration reform, as outlined by Gittelson, was needed. He basically proposed granting illegal immigrants citizenship if they paid taxes and passed a background check. When he challenged Kellar to give his support, Mayor Laurene Weste was happy to dash Gittelson’s hopes by saying that the Council does not respond directly to public comments when they are made. For Gittelson, it was a resounding ultimatum FAIL.

Berta Gonzalez-Harper came forward shortly after and dismissed the words of those who had come from LA to speak out against Bob Kellar. Holding back a skeptical chuckle, she told Governor-hopeful Alvarez “Good luck with that” and suggested that he and his fellow speakers go home. Gonzalez emphasized the distinction between legal and illegal immigration and, despite her usual vociferousness, finished her comment with time to spare and even a sprinkling of applause (which Mayor Weste was quick to squelch).

Delivering the closing remarks for the anti-Kellar contingent was John Fernandez. He submitted copies of a letter of formal complaint that he would be submitting (or had already submitted--it wasn't clear to me) to the CA Attorney General and others. He gained instant credibility with the locals by referring to “Santa Clara’s Code of Ethics” (emphasis added; he would later say Clarita, though). Apparently, eight violations of various parts of the code have occurred. The first one was Kellar’s failure to declare that he was speaking as an individual, not a City official, when he talked about illegal immigration at a rally. Other violations apparently refer to fellow City Council members for not condemning Kellar’s actions. As you may have guessed from the Clara/Clarita mistake, Fernandez was not a very good speaker, and relied primarily on throwing around words like “xenophobic” and “racist."

Nearly lost in the back-and-forth was an incredibly gutsy, gasp-provoking comment/accusation from City Council Candidate David Gauny. Gauny said that at the last City Council meeting, Councilmember Frank Ferry approached him in the chambers and—reportedly in front of several witnesses—Ferry threatened Gauny with an all-out smear campaign. Gauny described the encounter, recounting that Ferry said “You threw the first punch, and we’re coming after you're going to learn the hard way.” Gauny reaffirmed support for Bob Kellar as a model councilmember, and said in contrast that “Ferry exemplifies everything that is wrong with our government” and derisively called attention to the non-angelic behavior of “our esteemed Catholic High School [Alemany] Principal.” And no, this wasn’t TimBen Boydston wearing a Gauny mask. It was the sort of comment there is no going back from, but one that will surely offer Gauny (and others living vicariously through Gauny) deep satisfaction whether he wins a CC seat or not. We can only presume that Gauny is telling the truth about Ferry's threats, as this is not the sort of thing one just "makes up," which means Ferry has some explaining to do.

The end of the meeting was a drawn-out affair. Kellar said that hundreds of people have offered him overwhelming support. He says that whether words are delivered in person while he buys coffee or over email from people across the country, the message is the same: “Bob, stay the course.” His repeated arguments about how much money “illegals” cost Californians drew the ire of the LA illegal immigrants rights crowd, one of whom tried unsuccessfully to challenge Kellar by coming to the public microphone and yelling something about the Brown Act before he was cut off.

It was decided that within a month or two there will be a Study Session—which the public can attend and comment at—on illegal immigration and what the City of Santa Clarita can do about it. If anything, the Kellar-inspired immigration dialogue is growing louder, not softer.


[2]Here's the Governor-to-be's website