McWhorter on police violence

June 14, 2020 • 11:30 am

Although John McWhorter, a professor of English and linguistics at Columbia University, is also a contributing editor at The Atlantic, his new essay on police violence was not published there. Rather, it’s in Quillette. Given that in length, style, and quality (it’s very well written and makes cogent points) it would be suitable for The Atlantic, I’m guessing that he didn’t even try to publish it there. That’s because it makes an argument that is politically uncongenial to The Atlantic and to much of the Left:  that perhaps the claim that black men get shot by police at a rate higher than their frequency in the population  is not a function of police racism, but of a greater frequency of interactions between blacks and police due to a higher crime rate in black communities.

This idea is heterodox, contrarian, and is suitable for Quillette. But no mainstream Leftist media would ever touch it, even though it might contain some truth. It’s not ideologically acceptable to say that while there are some racist cops, the difference in the relative frequency of blacks versus whites killed by cops could be due to a higher crime rate among black males and in the black community, perhaps itself a function of poverty that breeds crime. This is a valid hypothesis, but it taboo for most of us to discuss. As black men, however people like McWhorter and Glenn Lourycan say this without fear of being deemed “racists”.

Read for yourself (click on screenshot).

First, the disproportionality:

. . . .it remains true that black people are killed at a rate disproportionate to their percentage of the population. Does this decisively demonstrate racial bias or murderous animus on the part of American law enforcement? Blacks represent about 13 percent of the US population but about a quarter of victims in cop killings. Whites constitute about 62 percent of the population but only half of those killed by the police. With slight fluctuations, these trends have been broadly consistent.

But you can’t say that this itself is prima facie evidence that cops are racist, and that they murder men like George Floyd because they’re black. As McWhorter notes:

However, these figures are not necessarily evidence of police racism. According to the Washington Post‘s database, over 95 percent of the people fatally shot by police officers in 2019 were male, and no serious-minded person argues that this is evidence of systemic misandry. So what, then, accounts for the disproportionate representation of black men among those killed by cops?

McWhorter gives lots of examples of both black men and white men killed by cops in nearly identical circumstances, but the deaths of whites gets much less attention because it doesn’t play into a narrative of police racism. One is Tony Pimpa, a 32-year-old white man who suffocated in 2016 when a cop put a knee on his back for 13 minutes. Timpa’s crime was calling the cops himself for help because he feared he might be a danger to himself when he was drunk. That’s just the first example, and McWhorter gives others:

Timpa was, of course, just one case and might be dismissed as an anomaly. On the other hand, we are told that what happened to George Floyd is what happens to black people “all the time.” But because the killing of black suspects by white police officers receives more media attention and elicits more outrage, such instances leave us vulnerable to the availability heuristic—a cognitive bias that leads us to form judgements about the prevalence of phenomena based on the readiness with which we can recall examples. Had Tony Timpa been black, we would all likely know his name by now. Had George Floyd been white, his name would likely be a footnote, briefly reported in Minneapolis local news and quickly forgotten. In fact, white people are victims of police mistreatment “all the time” too. And just as the Timpa case tragically parallels the Floyd one, there are countless episodes paralleling those we hear about involving black people.

In 2014, John Crawford, black, was shot dead by police while waving a BB gun. In 2016, Daniel Shaver, white, was waving a pellet gun out of motel window and suffered the same fate. In 2015, officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott, black, in the back and killed him as he was running to evade a traffic ticket; the following year, Andrew Thomas, white, was shot in the neck by a police officer and killed as he climbed out of the SUV he had crashed trying to evade arrest. In 2015, Sam DuBose, black, was shot dead as he tried to escape a traffic summons in his car; the same year, Michael Parker, white, was shot dead in the same way while trying escape a ticket for a moving violation. In 2016, Philando Castile, black, was shot dead in his car by a cop as he reached under his waistband for his license and registration during a traffic stop; the same year, Dylan Noble, white, was shot dead under almost identical circumstances. Also in 2016, Alton Sterling, black, was shot dead in front of a convenience store as he was being detained for unruly conduct; the same year, Brandon Stanley, white, was shot dead in a convenience store for trying to avoid a warrant.

Of course these are just parallels and don’t answer the question we want to know: are black people more likely to be murdered by cops on a per capita basis, in a given set of encounters, with controls from white suspects in similar situations, with all other things roughly equal? If that’s the case, then racism is implicated. Anecdotes like those above won’t answer that question.

But the point McWhorter is making is that there are other causes for higher per capita rates of blacks being shot by police, and we have to work out why this is the case. He mentions some alternatives (I’ve bolded the crux of his thesis).

The socioeconomic gap between blacks and whites is doubtless an important contributing factor. Police are called to poor neighborhoods more often, so poverty makes someone more likely to encounter law enforcement. From the 1970s through the 1990s, many conservatives argued that too many black people were on welfare. Liberals and progressives replied that, firstly, more white people were on welfare and that, secondly and more importantly, a greater proportion of the black population is on welfare because a greater proportion of black people are mired in poverty. In this context, former Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery observed that black people are about two-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by cops than their representation in the population would predict. Today, the percentage of black people living in poverty is about two-and-a-half times that of whites (22 percent and nine percent, respectively, in 2018).

This disparity in poverty rates means black people are also disproportionately represented in rates of violent crime. Poverty can lead to dangerous survival choices that include lucrative criminal activity. Furthermore, outstanding warrants can cause suspects to flee law enforcement when stopped for other trivial infractions. This disparity cannot explain every fatal police shooting, including some of the most notorious examples, such as the shootings of Tamir Rice and Philando Castile. Nevertheless, the tragedy remains: Higher aggregate crime rates lead to more encounters with police officers overall which increases the likelihood that a proportion of those encounters will get out of hand. Entrenched socioeconomic disparities should concern us all, and are as intolerable as cop murders. But the idea that the police murder out of racist animus is much less clear than we are often led to suppose.

This is not to say that McWhorter thinks that no cops are racists, or that there isn’t a systematic form of racism among some police departments. He notes, for example, that blacks are disproportionately pulled over by cops for drug searches, and that must be due to race since the disparity with whites disappears after dusk when race is harder to identify. Further, blacks are more likely than whites to be handcuffed, put up against a wall, or confronted with drawn weapons.  If one can indeed show that the same disparity holds for murder with the appropriate controls, then, Houston (and Atlanta and Minneapolis), we have a problem.

Here’s McWhorter’s ending:

Police officers are too often overarmed, undertrained, and low on empathy. Some police officers are surely racist and act like it. But it does not follow that white cops routinely kill black people in tense situations out of racist animus. This scenario may seem plausible—I believed it until only a few years ago. But there are times when facts are counterintuitive, and it is important to get the facts right and to analyze them with clear eyes and a clear mind (the enlightening work of criminologist and ex-cop Peter Moskos is helpful in this regard). Rhetoric has a way of straying from reality, and to get where we all want to go, it is reality that we must address.

 McWhorter’s message is that we shouldn’t rush to judgment about racist killer cops. It may be too late: the claim is largely taken for granted by many. But McWhorter can get away with saying this only because he’s black, and thus can’t be called a racist (I suspect he’s already suffered that, though). That only African-American can argue this way without opprobrium is, as they, problematic.  To paraphrase Dr. King, the validity of an argument should not depend on the pigmentation of the person who makes it.


Calls to literally abolish the police

June 13, 2020 • 11:00 am

There’s been some discussion about what the demand for “defunding the police” really means. To some it means cutting police budgets in ways to minimize their brutality, and the example often used is their acquisition of discarded equipment from the U.S. military, or more training in social work by cops. To others it means deeply slashing police budgets, although where the cuts are to go isn’t often specified. Often the slashed funds are to be diverted to social programs whose existence, they claim, will severely reduce crime.

And to others in the “disband the police” camp, it means, as adherent Mariame Kaba says in the New York Times op-ed below, the literal abolition of police departments. And that’s what she argues (click screenshot to read). There was a lot of criticism about what Tom Cotton said in his NYT editorial, because his call for putting the military in U.S. cities to police demonstrations was just dumb. Well, Mariame Kaba’s op-ed seems just as dumb to me, but it meets with no criticism because it’s woke.

Kaba is a writer, organizer, and activist advocating for abolition of the police and the prison-industrial complex.  Here are her arguments for disbanding the police:

1.) Most cops don’t spend their time going after bad guys, but writing traffic tickets, fielding noise complaints, ad other issues. She quotes someone saying “The vast majority of police officers make one felony arrest a year. If they make two, they’re cop of the month.”  This, of course, overlooks the deterrent effect of simply having a police presence. If there weren’t cops on the street, people would be running red lights and stop signs willy-nilly, and traffic accidents would increase. Likewise with crime in general, as the Montreal police strike of 1969 showed.

2.) The tendency of cops to “keep black and other marginalized people in check through threats of arrest, incarceration, violence, and death” does not create a safer society. To the extent that this is true (and tomorrow we’ll see a dissent by John McWhorter), this needs to be stopped. Police should not be treating people differently based on their race. But before we make this assertion, we need evidence that it’s the case. I suspect it is for many interactions between police and citizens, but it’s not so clear for things like cops killing people.  The solution is not to abolish the police, but to train them better, and to ruthlessly weed out the bad apples. Bodycams must be turned on at all times, and so on.

3.) “Police officers break rules all the time.” Kaba mentions slashing tires, shoving people unnecessarily, arresting journalists, and so on. Again, the solution is to instill police officers with a respect for the rules, which includes the threat of firing and, if they break the law, of arrest.

Kaba’s error here is to propose complete abolition of police departments in a naive faith that people who aren’t policed will act well, eliminating the need for cops. But if you live on planet Earth, this is palpably ridiculous. Alternatives to cops, she says, are more social work, health care, better housing, and so on. And yes, these are things we must do to eliminate the inequalities created by history, and surely will help eliminate crime, a lot of which stems from poverty. But not all of it!  We will still have crimes not motivated by poverty (this is assuming we can get rid of it, which is a long way off): murders, rapes, white-collar crime, terrorism, and so on. And of course many of these crimes have nothing to do with social inequality.

But here: read what Kaba wants:

But don’t get me wrong. We are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.

We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.

We can build other ways of responding to harms in our society. Trained “community care workers” could do mental-health checks if someone needs help. Towns could use restorative-justice models instead of throwing people in prison.

What, no sequestration of dangerous people, sequestration that not only keeps the baddies out of society, but could also act as a deterrent and, in an ideal world (not the U.S.!) help reform people?  Restorative justice, in which offenders meet with those they’ve harmed and work out resolutions, can work in some cases of nonviolent crimes, but will it work with armed robbers, rapists, or people like the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, or other sociopaths? What would Kaba do with a serial killer, or someone who murders a bank clerk while committing a robbery? And even with restorative justice, how do you catch the offender in the first place without police? Are they just going to come forward and confess?

And what about rape or sexual assault, crimes not clearly connected with poverty? Kaba’s solution to this seems heartless; she simply claims “but cops rape, too, and, anyway, most rapists are never caught.”:

What about rape? The current approach hasn’t ended it. In fact most rapists never see the inside of a courtroom. Two-thirds of people who experience sexual violence never report it to anyone. Those who file police reports are often dissatisfied with the response. Additionally, police officers themselves commit sexual assault alarmingly often. A study in 2010 found that sexual misconduct was the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct.  In 2015, The Buffalo News found that an officer was caught for sexual misconduct every five days.

Got it? Because there’s still rape, police are useless against the crime.  True, it’s hard to catch and successfully prosecute rape, but, according to the Department of Justice, “About 234,000 convicted sex offenders are under the care, custody, or control of corrections agencies on an average day.” 5% of the U.S. prison population consists of sexual offenders. What would Kaba do about this? She has no solution.

Instead, she counts on people’s goodwill to ensure that a world without cops would largely be a world without crime. I think she’s sorely mistaken. And her palaver about “restorative justice”, and the feel-good sentiments below, don’t make a good case for abolishing the police. By all means reform police departments, and by all means ensure that more money flows to the root causes of crime, including inequality, poverty, and lack of opportunity. But seriously, abolish the police? Who would you call if you were raped, or if someone is trying to break into your house? A social worker?

When people, especially white people, consider a world without the police, they envision a society as violent as our current one, merely without law enforcement — and they shudder. As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.

People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.

Holy Kropotkin, Batman! A vision entirely without police? Does any country in the world lack police? I don’t think so—even the most progressive ones, and even countries far more racially homogeneous than the U.S. Until I see a convincing case for why a country without police would be better than one with police, and some concrete plans for how we replace the cops but ensure people’s safety, I’m not signing on.

By the way, this is also happening at the University of Chicago (and other schools as well), where some faculty and many students want the large University of Chicago police department to be disbanded. There was in fact a demonstration for this yesterday, and you can read their “demands” on the Facebook page below (click on screenshot).

This won’t work either, especially because they explicitly say that they’re not trying to replace the University of Chicago police with the City of Chicago’s police. No, they just want no cops on or around the campus (the U of C police patrol an area much larger than the campus, and although some of them have harassed black students, by and large they’re a potent force keeping our campus safe. Without them, we’d suffer an attrition of faculty, staff, and students, who depend on campus police to help keep the area safe.  Sometimes I wonder if people who make demands like this are thinking clearly. No, let me be a bit stronger: I think people who make demands like this are not thinking clearly, or perhaps are involved in some kind of performative virtue-flaunting. I will have no truck with them.

But no worries: our University is not stupid enough to get rid of its police department.

All officers in George Floyd murder now to face charges, with Derek Chauvin’s charge raised to second-degree murder

June 3, 2020 • 2:08 pm

Senator Amy Klobuchar tweeted this out:

And the Minnesota Star-Tribune article says this:

Attorney General Keith Ellison plans to elevate charges against the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck while adding charges of aiding and abetting murder against the other three officers at the scene, according to multiple law enforcement sources familiar with the case.

Ellison is expected to provide an update this afternoon on the state’s investigation into Floyd’s death. According to sources, former officer Derek Chauvin, recorded on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he begged for air on May 25, will now be charged with second-degree murder.

The other three officers at the scene — Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — will also be charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, according to the sources, who spoke on conditions of anonymity. Chauvin was arrested last Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Thao was recorded watching as Chauvin continued to press on Floyd’s neck with his knee. Kueng was one of the first officers on the scene and helped pin Floyd down. Lane was detailed in earlier charges as pointing a gun at Floyd before handcuffing, and later asked whether officers should roll Floyd on his side as he was restrained.

I was keen on all the cops being charged from the outset, and now it’s happened. So far, at least with respect to Floyd’s death, justice has been done.  We can speculate that justice may be sidetracked if the officers get off, for the video itself pretty much tells the tale.

The defense, of course, has to make the prosecution prove its case, and in the case of second-degree murder in Minnesota they have to prove one of these violations beyond a reasonable doubt for Derek Chauvin:

I suspect that Subdivision 1, point (1) is the relevant statute here, though they’d have to prove that Chauvin intended to cause the death of Floyd. As for the other three officers, charged with “aiding and abetting” Chauvin, I wasn’t able to find the statue (the server was down, probably busy), but they certainly stood by and heard Floyd cry “I can’t breathe”, and also stood by while Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck after the man became unresponsive.

A badge should not provide immunity against criminal acts. We’ll see what the defense has to say, but so far there’s no reason to assert that justice isn’t being done for Floyd. Whether it’s being done by police forces across the U.S. is another matter.

Independent autopsy: George Floyd died of asphyxiation

June 1, 2020 • 3:23 pm

Well, this isn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was the exculpation of the cops by the state’s medical examiner, especially in view of that video showing a man repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe. CNN reports the results of an independent autopsy (click on screenshot):

An excerpt:

An independent autopsy found that George Floyd’s death was a homicide and the unarmed black man died of “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.”

The autopsy says compression to Floyd’s neck and back led to a lack of blood flow to his brain.

Floyd was essentially “dead on the scene” in Minneapolis on May 25, said Ben Crump, attorney for the Floyd family. Multiple videos of Floyd’s death show former police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, along with other officers kneeling on his back.

Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in total and two minutes and 53 seconds after Floyd was unresponsive, according to a criminal complaint released by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.

“The ambulance was his hearse,” Crump told reporters Monday. “George died because he needed a breath. He needed a breath of air.”

“There is no other health issue that could cause or contribute to the death,” said Dr. Michael Baden, one of the independent medical examiners. “Police have this false impression that if you can talk, you can breathe. That’s not true.”

The state’s coroner, of course, had a different result:

The independent autopsy’s findings come after the Hennepin County Medical Examiner found “no physical findings” to “support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation,” according to the criminal complaint.

Preliminary autopsy results cited in the complaint said combined effects of being restrained, any potential intoxicants in Floyd’s system and his underlying health issues, including heart disease, probably contributed to his death. Toxicology results can take weeks.

You know what? I don’t even care if the state’s autopsy results are correct (I doubt they are), as they still show murder.  If Floyd would have lived had the cop not had a knee on his neck, I don’t care much about other “contributory factors”. The knee made him die when he wouldn’t have died otherwise, and that’s all there is, folks. The charges might be less, but I don’t trust the state’s results.

I am also wondering whether, if the cop gets convicted, he’ll get a more severe punishment than if Floyd was murdered by a civilian. Pondering this, I think he should, for the cops have the authority to detain people, and nobody can stop them if they choose to put a knee on someone’s neck, even if it’s uncalled for. This means that for reasons of deterrence alone, cops need to learn the consequences of such behavior. With the power they have, they need a strong incentive to use it responsibly and humanely.

Of course if the perp, Officer Derek Chauvin, goes to jail, he’s going to have a very rough time of it.

And these autopsy results will energize the protests. So long as they’re not violent, that’s fine with me.

It’s beyond belief that that cop would kneel on a protesting man for over eight minutes and then not let up when the man became unresponsive. What kind of monster would do that?


Lori Loughlin and Massimo Giannulli finally plead guilty in “Admissiongate”

May 21, 2020 • 12:00 pm

After insisting for months that they were not guilty of bribing their daughters’ way into the University of Southern California by presenting fake resumes as athletes, actor Lori Laughlin and her husband, fashion designer Massimo Giannulli, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. The details are in the article below from CNN (click on screenshot). The upshot: both of the privileged and wealthy parents are going to jail, though not for that long.

An excerpt:

Loughlin, 55, and Giannulli, 56, had been accused of paying $500,000 to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California as fake crew team recruits. They had pleaded not guilty for more than a year and moved to dismiss charges as recently as two weeks ago.

As part of the plea agreement, Loughlin will be sentenced to two months in prison and Giannulli will be sentenced to five months in prison, subject to the court’s approval, according to authorities.

In addition, Loughlin faces a $150,000 fine, two years of supervised release and 100 hours of community service, and Giannulli faces a $250,000 fine, two years of supervised release and 250 hours of community service.

They are scheduled to plead guilty on Friday at 11:30 a.m., prosecutors said.

. . .Loughlin will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, and Giannulli will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and honest services wire and mail fraud. The actress, best known for her role as Aunt Becky on the sitcom “Full House,” and her husband had previously been charged with three counts of conspiracy.

“Under the plea agreements filed today, these defendants will serve prison terms reflecting their respective roles in a conspiracy to corrupt the college admissions process and which are consistent with prior sentences in this case,” said US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. “We will continue to pursue accountability for undermining the integrity of college admissions.”

They were facing up to 20 years in prison if they pleaded “not guilty” but were then convicted, though nobody thought they would serve that much time (some thought “several years”). Loughlin and Giannulli are the 23rd and 24th parents to plead guilty in this case; the most famous was actor Felicity Huffman, who also pleaded guilty from the outset and served 11 days.

I’ve followed this case more closely than usual for such a scandal, probably because it involves something that I consider unconscionable: forging one’s credentials to get into college. By so doing—and both daughters were accepted, though they are no longer students—you take the place of someone more deserving.

And USC is a good school, which somehow makes it seem worse. Thus I was hoping for a fairly stiff sentence, probably as a deterrent. Two to five months in stir seems pretty weak to me, though both parents will be convicted felons and their ability to make money will be reduced (their famous fashion-blogger daughter Olivia Jade has already had several of her contracts dropped, most probably on the grounds that they were probably complicit in this scam).

The couple always insisted that they were simply doing what is common practice: donating money to a school in return for favorable consideration for their daughters’ admission, and that it was not tit-for-tat bribery. But that doesn’t explain the phony applications listing their daughters as crew coxswains.

Why did they change their plea? The Los Angeles Times says this:

It’s unclear, and Loughlin’s attorney declined to comment Thursday, but the reversal followed a significant legal setback.

Earlier this month, a judge declined to dismiss the fraud, bribery and money laundering charges against Loughlin and her co-defendants, ruling that federal agents and prosecutors did not pressure Singer, their chief cooperator, to mislead his clients on recorded phone calls and draw out flawed evidence of criminal intent.

And, in a levying of the “not guilty plea tax”, prosecutors heaped additional bribery charges on the pair, raising the stakes—and potential jail time—considerably.

From what I’ve seen of the documents in the case, which includes the phony admissions forms, Loughlin and Giannulli seemed clearly guilty. Some of the people calling for their heads undoubtedly wanted some Schadenfreude, perhaps because of Loughlin’s squeaky-clean role as Aunt Becky in the t.v. show
“Full House”, but what I wanted was a sentence that would deter others from cheating.

Will it? Is two or five months in jail, along with fines and community service, fit punishment for these crimes?

You can weigh in in the poll below (please respond):


Harvey Weinstein sentenced to 23 years in jail

March 11, 2020 • 10:45 am

This just happened, and, given the fact that Weinstein could have received as little as five years (or as many as 25), the judge clearly felt that Weinstein’s crimes merited a stiff sentence. I can’t say I disagree.

Since Weinstein is 67, this means he’ll die in jail, and that’s not even counting the upcoming trial in Los Angeles.

It’s heartening for many of us who, while agreeing that Weinstein had the right to a vigorous defense (that included Ronald Sullivan of Harvard, who lost his house mastership over representing Weinstein), also know that when the evidence is convincing, even the best lawyers can’t get you off. And even someone as rich and powerful at Weinstein, must, in the end, become a common criminal, living in a bare cell in an orange suit.

I think a stiff sentence was a necessary deterrent here. There’s no possibility of reformation, as the man won’t get out of prison, and he seems to show no repentance even now:

For his part, Mr. Weinstein suggested in a rambling speech to the court that he thought his relationships with his victims were consensual and he was “totally confused” by what had happened to him.

“We may have different truths, but I have remorse for all of you and for all the men going through this crisis,” he said, addressing his accusers.

He added: “I really feel remorse for this situation. I feel it deeply in my heart. I’m really trying, I’m really trying to be a better person.”

But that’s weird since if he really believed the relationships were consensual, why does he need to try to become a “better person”?

And he’s been removed from society, so he can no longer prey on women subject to his power.

So be it. People will forget about him soon, but perhaps potential predators will remember.

Harvey Weinstein convicted of on two charges of sex crimes

February 25, 2020 • 7:30 am

Given the corroborating testimony about Harvey Weinstein’s behavior (over 90 women have made accusations), and the fact that there’s another trial coming up for him in Los Angeles, it was impossible—for me at least—to believe that he was innocent of using his power to coerce women into sex. Justice, then, appears to have been done: yesterday Weinstein was found guilty in New York of two of the five crimes of which he was charged: rape and criminal sexual assault, for which he faces up to 29 years in prison.

Weinstein was, however, acquitted of the most serious charges, including first-degree rape and predatory sexual assault, which could have put him away for life. But given the further charges against him in Los Angeles and the fact that he’s 67, he will surely spend the rest of his life in jail. (The charges in Los Angeles include forcible rape, forcible oral copulation, sexual penetration by use of force and sexual battery by restraint, and for these he faces up to 28 additional years in jail.)

I was struck by his reaction as reported by the New York Times:

Mr. Weinstein sat motionless as the verdict was read.

“But I’m innocent,” he said three times to his lawyers, appearing stunned a few minutes later when he was handcuffed and two court officers led him off to jail to await sentencing. He was taken first to Bellevue Medical Center by ambulance after complaining of chest pains and showing signs of high blood pressure, his representatives said.

As I do not believe he’s at all innocent, this suggests that he still has no idea that what he did was a criminal act and not “consensual sex,” as his defense maintained. He’ll have the rest of his life to ponder what he did, and maybe he’ll decide that it was wrong. There will be an appeal, but I doubt it will be successful.

Weinstein now becomes a common criminal, living out his days in jail wearing an orange jumpsuit—a far cry from the luxurious life he had as a Hollywood producer. It is just deserts, and a just deterrent for others from using their power to force sex upon unwilling victims.

Here’s an ABC news video about the conviction and charges:

More sordid details of the college admissions scandal

February 11, 2020 • 2:15 pm

I feel like I need a shower before I even write about this stuff—not because it’s sordid (which it is), but because it’s Hollywood gossip. On the other hand, the 2019 college admissions scandal—in which many parents paid bribes and fees and construct false resumes to get their kids into prestigious colleges—really bothers me. Perhaps it’s because it’s the desecration of what a university means, but I think that the participants in this scandal (53 have been charged, 33 of which are parents) need to get reasonably stiff sentences to deter others from lying on their resumes—or encouraging others to do so.  At least that’s what I tell myself, though I feel a strong retributivist instinct that clashes with my belief that we have no free will.

That aside, I think, and am probably right, that those who contest the charges, like actor Lori Laughlin and her husband  Mossimo Giannulli, will, if convicted, face stiffer jail sentences than parents like Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty, showed contrition, and spent ten days in jail. Laughlin and Giannulli have, according to CNN, “been charged with three conspiracy counts for allegedly paying $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters into USC.” The pair could theoretically be sentenced to years in prison if convicted, but that’s not going to happen.

Below you see the tangible evidence that angers me: the confected profile of daughter Olivia Jade Gianulli (an “influencer”) that was part of her application, pretending that she was a rowing star. (She never lifted an oar in her life.) It was apparently accompanied by phony pictures of both of their daughters on rowing machines. Every accomplishment on this document, released by prosecutors, is an arrant lie.

I suspect the parents will be convicted if they foolishly insist on continuing to fight the charges, and I hope they get at least a couple of months in prison (“the ‘not guilty’ plea tax). I am surprised, though, that the two daughters won’t face any charges. The NBC News last night reported that prosecutors are trying to pressure Laughlin and her husband to plead guilty by threatening to force their daughter to testify against them.

So far those who have falsified documents and paid bribes have gotten off fairly lightly, though mastermind William Rick Singer hasn’t yet been sentenced. Maybe a light sentence is a just sentence here, but some demon in me insists that those who pull these kinds of stunts on colleges should be put in the slammer for a while and then branded as felons. And Olivia Jade, who is surely complicit in this, should at least no longer be an “influencer”. What kind of “influence” comes with lying your way into the University of Southern California?

Here’s how an “influencer” gets subscribers and lots of money (she’s 20, and left USC after the scandal broke):

Atlantic article criticizes due process as being harmful and full of lies

February 10, 2020 • 11:00 am

I came upon this article when someone sent me the tweet below (I don’t know who Cathy Young is). The caption is pretty snarky, but the article in The Atlantic  by Megan Garber, which you can access by clicking on the link or the bottom part of the tweet, justifies the snark. It’s really a pretty dire article that criticizes due process because in some cases (read: accusations of sexual misconduct), “due process” involves making the witnesses uncomfortable or upset, and causing harm. And it can’t guarantee justice.

The article is about how the defense lawyers for Harvey Weinstein have been going pretty strongly after the witnesses, sometimes portraying them as forgetful, imperfect or possibly making stuff up. Further, some of the stuff that has come out, whether it be Weinstein’s misshapen genitals or the tampon of one of his alleged victims, is ugly.  I’m not quite sure what the “lies” of due process are (the words “lie” or “lies” occur only in the headline), but it seems to be that, as the headline says, due process seems reasonable and straightforward, but can be very ugly, and not produce the result that we consider “just”. But those aren’t really “lies”.

Garber’s point, as far as she has a point, seems to be that due process is overrated because of the difficulties it creates for witnesses in cases like the Weinstein trial. She doesn’t go so far as to argue that the rules of evidence should be suspended or weakened, but that’s what I glean from her article. Here are some excerpts. (The emphasis is mine.)

Donald Trump, defending a staffer who had been accused of domestic violence, joined the chorus: “Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”

Of course there is. And it has been on display in Weinstein’s long-awaited criminal trial. That trial has been, even as blunt-force legal proceedings go, particularly ugly. The women who have accused him of rape and other forms of assault have told graphic and harrowing stories, often tearfully, on the stand. (Weinstein has denied all charges of nonconsensual sexual encounters.) They have spoken of pleas ignored; of pants ripped off; of a tampon forcibly removed; of pain; of degradation; of threats; of fear. Weinstein, too, has endured his own humiliations as the women have testified: Jessica Mann, a former aspiring actor who alleges that Weinstein raped her, said last week that Weinstein has genital deformities. As evidence of her claim, a picture of Weinstein—naked—was displayed to the jury.

No person shall be deprived “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Due process suggests the comforts of idealized thinking, summoning notions of equality and fairness and the sanctity of facts. It may be rooted in reason; in practice, though, it can look like what it has during Weinstein’s trial: a perpetuation of harm.  
There’s no doubt that it’s hard for a witness, particularly one who might have been raped, to face Weinstein in court and recount what happened. But that’s not a “perpetuation of harm”, it’s a way to ultimately prevent the greater harm of sexual predators like Weinstein from continuing to operate.  Garber further recounts sharp defense questioning of prosecution witnesses confirming the stories of Anabella Sciorra, who claims she was raped by Weinstein in the early 1990s.

Garber then reaches her conclusion, referring to an interview of one of Weinstein’s attorneys, Donna Rotunno, by New York Times reporter Megan Twohey (my emphasis):

The structure of the criminal trial, when it deals with the intimacies of sex, means that testifying—the ostensibly straightforward act of telling one’s story—can require extreme bravery. “There is absolutely no risk for a woman to come forward now and make a claim. Zero,” Rotunno told Twohey. Here, however, is one of the many possible counterarguments: “He held me down on the bed and he forced himself on me orally,” Haleyi told the jury. “I was on my period. I had a tampon in there. I was mortified.” Here is another: Mann sobbed as she told the court that Weinstein had raped her. She hyperventilated. When she was given a break, she was heard screaming from a back room. She had spent several hours testifying. “Defense lawyers again portrayed her as an opportunistic manipulator who had a long romantic relationship with the producer,” is how a Times subheading summed up part of the time she’d spent on the stand.

This is due process at work. Whether the process will result in justice is a notably different matter. The prosecution rested its case on Thursday, after two weeks of testimony, with weeks’ worth of rebuttal from the defense likely to follow. As Weinstein was leaving court last Friday afternoon, after Mann’s testimony about his body, a reporter asked for his reaction to the proceedings. This was Weinstein’s reply: “Wait to see what the lawyers say about her.”

In my opinion, Weinstein is guilty, as there is too much concordant evidence pointing to his guilt. But he deserves a fair trial. And a fair trial means, if it means anything, that the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. And that, in turn, requires a vigorous defense, in which defense attorneys use every legal opening they can to cast doubt on the prosecution’s story, and on their witnesses. And there are rules that must be followed; when they’re not, the judge says “Objection sustained.” Yes, it’s grueling, and no witness escapes unscathed. 

Yes, it can be brutal, and victims may get retraumatized. But what is the alternative? If due process doesn’t “result in justice”—which seems to be one of the other lies that Garber refers to—what is her alternative? I don’t see any, not so long as guilt, with its sentence in this case a lifetime behind bars, must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Does Garber want to use the Title IX standards of “preponderance of evidence” instead? I don’t think any of us would support such a system.

When I was an expert witness for the defense in DNA cases, which often involved rape and murder, I was at first horrified at how the prosecution attorneys would go after me, questioning my credentials (“Really, Dr. Coyne—you work on flies. How can you have any expertise in human genetics?”), and probing for any weakness they could, even stuff that I thought was unfair (“You can’t simply add the probability of lab error to the probability of a random match. That’s apples and oranges!”). But later I came to realize that this kind of probing and jousting, particularly on the side of the defense (I worked for overburdened and underpaid public defenders who were amazingly dedicated), is necessary to air every possible weakness in a case.

Again, if Garber has an alternative to due process that causes less “harm,” I’d like to hear what it is. No process can guarantee justice, but due process is, at present, the best we’ve got.

The American media continues to tout the powers of psychics

January 26, 2020 • 9:00 am

Here’s a story published in both the State Journal of Frankfort, Kentucky (click on screenshot below) and Fox News. Note the headline: “Psychics were right. . ”

The story: Haylee Marie Martin, a 17-year-old, went missing on January 12 and her absence was reported to the police the next day. Baffled, the sheriff consulted psychics who predicted (sort of) where she would be found. In fact, she was found in the next county along with a 21-year-old woman when both were trying to break into the house of the woman’s boyfriend’s.  The police took them into custody on Friday. The pair won’t face charges, but the police may charge several adults who, they said, hid the girl for two weeks.

Now what about those psychics?

From the State Journal:

The sheriff said at 6 p.m. Thursday he joined a group of psychics from the Richmond area gathered at the Salyers Lane residence where Haylee was last seen on Jan. 12 or 13. Although he was admittedly skeptical at first, Quire said he “did not want to leave any stone unturned.”

“It’s hard to believe, but most (of the psychics) agreed that we would find Haylee in a neighboring county by morning,” he said. “And we did.”

Fox news gave the same report. (I wonder if they paid these psychics. If that’s the case, taxpayer money is funding woo.) Note that most of the psychics reported that she would be found in a neighboring county (correct) the day after the consultation.  Some of them apparently had other predictions, and were wrong.

This kind of reporting, of course, doesn’t mention the disparity of predictions, but it (and the headlines) serve to validate the widespread American view that psychics are accurate. But most missing people turn up nearby, so that’s not a stretch, and, most important, there’s no control here: how often are psychics consulted who turn out to be wrong? I can’t be arsed to do a comprehensive search given the palpable falsity of the idea that psychics are accurate, but a quick Google showed four cases in which psychics were brought into crime cases and gave wrong predictions.  These are “controls”, but of course a proper control would be to compare the accuracy of psychics in such cases compared with non-psychics who have comparable knowledge of the crime as conveyed by the police. I know of no such studies.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should remain agnostic about psychics, granting them the possibility that they could be right, for they make guesses in other situations as well, and those guesses are wrong. James Randi’s “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” was explicitly designed to test psychic abilities, but nobody has ever performed successfully (Randi is a magician well equipped to suss out tricks). You can read about a failure in 2009 here. Further, there’s no known physical mechanism whereby psychic abilities could be manifested. Now that doesn’t settle the case, as there may be unknown mechanisms. But physicist Sean Carroll has also written about how parapsychological phenomena are inconsistent with the laws of physics.

Still, Americans continue to be credulous. According to The Conversation, “there are still many people who firmly believe in the power of psychic ability. According to a US Gallup survey, for example, more than one-quarter of people believe humans have psychic abilities – such as telepathy and clairvoyance.” That study, done in 2005, also reports that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe in some paranormal phenomena. 73% of them, for example, subscribed to at least one of these claims:

To me this is a remarkable (and distressing) result, especially since scientific tests of some of these claims have never turned up any support. (See here, for example, on astrology.) But of course the same motivation behind many people’s belief in religion—faith that provides comfort, also lies behind belief in psychics. And one can’t argue that these people are harmless, because many of them take lots of money from their gullible clients. (In the clip below, John Oliver calls it a “2.2-billion-dollar industry”.)

There’s no need to further belabor the scams perpetrated by psychics, as many skeptics and their websites have debunked these claims. Let’s just watch a 21-minute clip in which John Oliver takes a few psychics apart with his characteristic wit. There are some good clips here of psychics “in action” (or rather, in inaction).  See the one starting at 16:05 for a particularly egregious case.