Author Archives: ARWiebe

Economists against the War on Drugs

Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher "Rice" via flickr CC.

Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher “Rice” via flickr CC.

As far as the London School of Economics is concerned, it is time to end the global War on Drugs. According to LSE’s new report, the “War” is a “billion-dollar failure.” The report was signed by five Nobel-Prize winning economists (Kenneth Arrow, Christopher Pissarides, Thomas Schelling, Vernon Smith, and Oliver Williamson), as well as former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, British Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and former NATO and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Al Jazeera explains:

“The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.” Citing mass drug-related incarceration in the US, corruption and violence in developing countries and an HIV epidemic in Russia, the group urged the UN to drop its “repressive, one-size-fits-all approach” to tackling drugs, which, according to the report, has created a $300bn black market.”

The LSE report urges a shift toward evidence-based approaches to illicit drug use: the tremendous resources devoted to the drug war could be diverted to more rigorous analysis and effective policy with “a focus on public health, minimising the impact of the illegal drug trade.”

Trust in Intelligence

trust fall

The Infamous Trust Fall; Photo by klndonnelly via

Trust is something that can be difficult to give to others. It must be carefully cultivated and protected. But what is behind someone’s ability to trust? New research has found that survey participants that showed high intelligence levels were also more likely to trust others. The research, lead by sociologist Noah Carl of the University of Oxford, used General Social Survey data to compare participant’s intelligence measures with their behaviors and social attitudes.

The researchers found that participants who scored highly on measures of intelligence were more likely to trust others, compared with those who had low scores on intelligence levels. This finding remained even after the team accounted for the participants’ socioeconomic characteristics, including marital status, education, and income.

The researchers say this may be because smarter individuals are better judges of character. They may be better at finding and developing relationships with people who are worthy of their trust and less likely to betray it. The investigators also point to past research linking trust with increased health and happiness and call for future research to be directed at how trust could lead to greater well-being.



McSenior Center

Photo by Kai Brinker via

Photo by Kai Brinker via

A recent incident where police officers removed elderly “loiterers” from a McDonald’s in Queens has sparked a debate over the phenomenon of spaces such as McDonald’s and Starbucks being used as impromptu senior centers. In her article for the New York TimesStacy Torres makes excellent use of sociological ideas when defending the use of these spaces for socializing. She argues that the use of these public places as a sort of social club helps these Manhattan seniors avoid isolation and keep much needed social bonds. She turns to sociologists to explain the phenomenon:

Ray Oldenburg, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of West Florida, calls these gathering spots “third places,” in contrast to the institutions of work and family that organize “first” and “second” places. He sees bookstores, cafes, and fast food joints as necessary yet endangered meeting points that foster community, often among diverse people. The Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson likens public settings such as Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia to a “cosmopolitan canopy,” where people act with civility and converse with others to whom they might never otherwise speak.

Torres explains that since many of the neighborhood places such as local bakeries or cafes have disappeared, these seniors are forced to turn to institutions such as these fast food restaurants in order to provide structure and routine to their lives.


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Affluenza: A Cute Name for the S.O.S.

Photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr CC

Photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr CC. Click for original.

The latest controversy in criminal justice revolves around the defense of 16-year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people when he hit them with his car, driving at double the speed limit and double the legal blood alcohol level (as an underage drinker, actually, there is no acceptable limit, but let’s stick with the charges). Couch’s defense argued that he suffered from “affluenza”—a condition under which he had lived such a privileged and entitled life, with so few consequences for bad behavior, that he could not now be held suddenly responsible for his actions. Bizarrely, the judge accepted this defense and sentenced Couch to ten years of probation and a stay in a rehab facility known for its hippotherapy (affectionately, if a bit dismissively, known as “having a therapy pony”). Had affluenza not been accepted as a defense, the usual sentence for Couch’s crimes would have been 10-20 years of prison time.

In an article for Forbes, Dr. Dale Archer reminds us that the lack of consequences that accompanies privilege isn’t anything new:

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen introduced the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the 19th century to explain the behavior of […] families who spent their accumulated wealth in ostentatious ways to show off their newfound prestige and power.

Archer goes on to stress that the real worry is how common the modern trend of affluenza seems to be. He worries that the Keeping Up With the Kardashians era may be breeding a generation of narcissists, if not sociopaths who not only don’t understand punishment but also balk at the idea that they have anything to be punished for. He cites social psychologist Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan:

Her study of 13,737 college students found that there was a 40% decrease in empathy currently, when compared with 20 or 30 years ago.

In the end, it may be the application of the cute name “affluenza” that proves most offensive: personal responsibility is all the rage when it comes to the poor and people of color, but wealthy whites’ privilege appears to have found yet another way to keep them above the fray.

See more on “Affluenza” at:

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Locking Up the Ladies

Photo by miss_millions via

Photo by miss_millions via

Over the past few years, Oklahoma has locked up its place as the state with the highest rates of female incarceration. In a recent article for The Oklahoman, Andrew Knittle interviewed University of Oklahoma sociologist Susan Sharp about the state’s “mean” laws that lead to this trend.

Sharp explains that Oklahoma has tough-on-crime sentencing guidelines that cause offenders to serve abnormally lengthy terms in prison. Sharp points specifically to overly punitive drug laws for these high incarceration rates. Possession of small amounts of drugs, which in most states would have little to no punishment, can lead to some serious jail time in Oklahoma. Sharp argues against

drug traffickers being forced to serve 85 percent of their sentences when drug rehabilitation would do more good at a lower cost to the state. “It’s the way we define drug trafficking (in Oklahoma) … if you’re arrested with five grams of crack cocaine, you can be charged with trafficking,” Sharp said.

Sharp also explained that women generally enter into a criminal lifestyle after going through one of three “pathways”:

coming from a poverty-stricken background, being in relationships with men who engage in criminal behavior, and suffering from a long history of abuse.

On a side note, the prison mentioned in this article is the same one featured in the documentary, “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo.” Links to the film can be found at the TSP documentary page at !

Men on a Rampage

Photo by Gideon Tsang via

Photo by Gideon Tsang via

After the recent shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, mass murders have once again occupied the attention of the American news media. From Aurora to Newtown to Washington, DC, one obvious trend among rampage shooters is that they are almost exclusively male. In a recent article for NPR, Linton Weeks asked members of the Homicide Research Working Group why women are so underrepresented among these shooters.

According to Lin Huff-Corzine of the University of Central Florida, women simply don’t kill as much as men. Examining FBI data, she and her colleagues found that:

Between 2001 and 2010, less than 8 percent of mass murder offenders in the U.S. were women, she says, adding that some of the women included in the statistics assisted in a crime but did not pull a trigger.

Candice Batton, the director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha explained that about 90-91% of homicide perpetrators were male. Men are more lethally violent than women in part due to their tendency to externalize blame for their personal problems, leading to “anger and hostility toward others.”

Batton says that women, on the other hand, “are more likely to develop negative attributions of blame that are internal in nature, that is: ‘The cause of my problems is some failing of my own: I didn’t try hard enough, I’m not good enough.’ And this, in turn, tends to translate into feelings of guilt and depression that are targeted toward oneself.”


Social Network Sorrows

Facebook Dislike photo via Flickr

Photo by zeevveez via

Social networks allow instant access to friends and family, and let you show the world what’s going on in your life. Maybe a bit narcissistic, but harmless. Studies, however, have been all over the place on the question of whether SNS (social networking systems) are “good” or “bad” for individuals and society. Are we more connected than ever or more disconnected than ever? A recent study by the Public Library of Science went with the bad news: it found that the more you use Facebook, the more miserable you’ll be.

A recent article in The Economist describes the work of Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan, and Philippe Verduyn of Leuven University in Belgium. In response to generally short-term, “cross-sectional” studies of SNS, their study was done over an extended period of time.  Subjects would answer surveys reporting their mental and emotional states multiple times a day. The more they were on Facebook, the more they reported being dissatisfied with life.

Others studies have associated the use of social networks like Facebook with depression, social tension, and envy. The article states:

Endlessly comparing themselves with peers who have doctored their photographs, amplified their achievements and plagiarised their bons mots can leave Facebook’s users more than a little green-eyed.

On a positive note, the same study found that the more in-person contact the subject had, the more satisfied they were. Digital dualism aside, a well-rounded life of on- and off-line interaction—that good old “moderation”—seemed to do the trick.

Barroom Bystanders

We hope it won't come to that. Photo by DigitalGirl via

We hope it won’t come to that. Photo by DigitalGirl via

When things start to get crazy, the “bystander effect” can kick in. As seen in many public incidents (notably when bystanders took photos of a man about to be killed on NYC train tracks), the bystander effect is generally considered a powerful force in determining whether someone intervenes in a dramatic indecent. Basically, people are less likely to intervene if others are around—they assume someone else will deal with the problem. That said, a recent study by graduate student Michael Parks of Penn State shows that the bystander effect may not be as strong as was once thought.  In an interview for MedicalXpress, Parks explains what he saw in observing bar fights:

These bystanders used nonaggressive interventions to break up about 65 percent of the fights between two aggressive males. Most bystander interventions were classified as nonviolent interventions, which included verbally stopping the fight, or separating the fighters.

Parks worked with Wayne Osgood and Richard Felson, both professors of Penn State; Samantha Wells of the University of Ontario; and Kathryn Graham of the University of Toronto. The team’s study found that bystanders were most likely to intervene when they felt the violence was getting “too severe.” Bystanders were most likely to step in when it was male-to-male aggression, since most assume the violence escalates most quickly. Surprisingly, bystanders generally avoided breaking up male-to-female aggression (though, anecdotally, police officers do say intervening in partner violence is risky, since both partners may turn their aggression on the interloper).

“It seems a little upsetting that people didn’t intervene in incidents that involved a man harassing a woman, but the results showed that this was indeed the case,” said Parks. “Our data showed that this type of violence had the lowest level of severity, so one explanation for the lack of intervention in these incidents is that third parties perceived that the events won’t escalate into higher levels of violence, something that does not have the potential to be dangerous or an emergency.”

Predicting Progess

Egyptian workers march on May Day 2013 Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

Egyptian workers march on May Day 2013. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim via

With ouster after ouster, Egypt has undergone constant changes in leadership in recent years. The situation may look like utter chaos, but political scientist Mark Abdollahian and his team of researchers believe they have a good idea of how the events will play out: They wrote a program. In a piece for CNN, Tara Kangarlou describes their work:

Abdollahian’s team used complex computer algorithm logic games that measure how people interact with one another to draw different scenarios of how segments of Egyptian society, power brokers, religious sectors and other sociopolitical variables would affect the outcome of the transition.

Abdollahian had earlier predicted that the Egyptian military would take an important role in watching over the restructuring of the nation and would serve as an important safety net in keeping good relations with the U.S. and its allies like Israel—important because of the massive amounts of American aid the Egyptian military relies on.

These researchers and others saw Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood as the best answer during the “Arab Spring,” but even at the time, they predicted that the Egyptian people would expect change within a year. Since true change is extremely difficult to achieve in such a short span, the team predicted Morsy’s rejection.

Asked what they think might unfold now, Abdollahian and his colleagues predict that the military will support elections and a revamping of the constitution. But first, they believe there’s a strong possibility of continued violence in which “regular Egyptians are the casualties.”

National Numbers and North Dakota

Not pictured: oil derricks, influx of young males, Hispanic residents.

Not pictured: oil derricks, influx of young males, Hispanic residents.

The United States Census produces massive amounts of data that can be combed through to learn more about our population and how it changes over time. In her piece for US News, Danielle Kurtzleben highlights some of the major findings from the latest Census data release.

Depending on the way you look at it, Asians or Hispanics (or both!) were the fastest growing population in the United States from 2011-2012. Hispanics had the largest growth in terms of population numbers, while Asians saw the largest rate of population growth each year. Meanwhile, the white birthrate was very low. More white people died than were born, and the population would have seen a net decrease if not for immigration. Further, among the elderly (over 80 years old), nearly 80% were white. The majority of children under age two are now minorities.

And then there’s North Dakota. An outlier in the data, the “upper Dakota” is actually getting younger. It is also majority male and has the fastest growing Hispanic population in the nation. All of this is largely a result of the state’s booming oil and gas industry, coupled with its relatively low past population (increases seem bigger when they’re building on a smaller population base). The new oil rush has also shored up North Dakota’s shockingly low unemployment rate of just 3.3%. For over a century, the Census has shown a nation in flux, but right now, it’s solid old North Dakota that’s hardest to pin down.