Thursday, January 29, 2009

Getting mugged by a girl named Apple

There must be something about being famous that compels parents to give their children stupid names. These crazy celebrity offspring appellations range from place names (like David and Victoria Beckham's child "Brooklyn") to fake-profession titles (Jason Lee's child "Pilot Inspektor") to the obviously drug-induced (Bob Geldof's child "Fifi Trixibell").

Are stupid baby names a problem? According a new study from two economists at Shippensberg University in Pennsylvania, these oddly-named children are more likely to commit crimes than those of us with boring names, like John or Dan. The authors find that:
"The distribution of first names in the state’s population is different from the names of juvenile delinquents. Our results show that unpopular names are positively correlated with juvenile delinquency for both blacks and whites."
The authors note that it is unlikely that having an unpopular name causes juvenile delinquency, but rather that unpopular names are "correlated with factors that increase the tendency toward juvenile delinquency, such as a disadvantaged home environment and residence in a county with low socioeconomic status." This seems strange to me. Why would they embark on a study to show that something correlated with factors that increase crime also are linked with more crime? It seems a little roundabout.

Further, Steven Levitt critiques the questionable methods used in this paper:

"The authors first compute criminality for each name by taking the ratio of the number of juvenile delinquents with that name and dividing it by the number of children total with that name. The higher that ratio, the more criminal the name. But then the authors take the log of that ratio. The problem is that the log of zero is equal to negative infinity, so any name for which that ratio is equal to zero gets dropped from the analysis.

The kinds of names that will have a ratio of zero are uncommon names for which no one with that name is a juvenile delinquent.

If I understand correctly what they are doing, if exactly one person has a particular name, the only way that the observation for that name will be included in their sample is if that person is a juvenile delinquent! This leads to a powerful bias toward mistakenly concluding that people with uncommon names are more likely to be criminals."
Quantitative research is fraught with pitfalls that can bias your results. It seems weird to me that they would have missed something like that, but then again, this study makes little sense to begin with.

Since the success of Malcom Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and Levitt's "Freakonomics", there has been a tendency for researchers to look for novel and completely unexpected relationships in data. But if you look hard enough (and use certain methods) you can find almost anything. It's really important to ground this sort of research in some sort of theory that one is trying to prove.

The good news is that we don't have to fear the wave of kids with unusual names eminating out of Hollywood.

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