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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Id, The Ego, and Randy Newman

An article in the Arts (!) Section of today's New York Times  recounts research done into a possible link between height, weight, beauty and the likelihood of committing a crime.  It cites research concluding that "shorter men are 20 to 30 percent more likely to end up in prison than their taller counterparts."  It cites similar research about overweight people. (I'm assuming that research controls for other variables.) 

I'm not quite sure what to make of all this, especially given that I'm a non-expert responding to a short news article.  At first glance, I can't help but wonder what in the world these researchers are thinking.  The dynamics leading from short stature or obesity seem obvious enough: childhood teasing, non- or lesser participation in sports and other self-esteem building activities, and a general sense of lesser desirability all lead to the inculcation of attitudes that lead to conduct that leads to bad outcomes.  Or, simply enough, stature and weight turn on childhood nutrition, which is significant in itself but may also be a marker for how well the child is being cared for more generally.  This doesn't seem like difficult stuff, and indeed, the article mentions some of this.  So I'm curious what the researchers mentioned in the article are really looking at.

For me, a more interesting question is what to do about any bias based on size or obesity.  The research cited here troubles me to the extent it puts in the popular mind the idea that there's some sort of causal effect between, say, obesity, and criminal conduct.  The article makes clear this is not what they intend, but it's easy enough for that more nuanced message to get lost -- especially with provocative article titles like "For Crime, Is Anatomy Destiny?"  (Gee, "Is Barak Obama Really A Citizen?")  I recently wrote an article about congressional power to enforce equal protection that considers the doctrinal dilemmas posed by proposed and recently enacted civil rights laws, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the Genetic Discrimination Non-Discrimination Act (GINA).  In that article I suggest that some new anti-discrimination legislation poses difficulties for courts as the discrimination they attack doesn't map easily onto the race or even gender discrimination templates we normally think about when we think about discrimination and equality.  Anna Kurland has also written on this issue, from the perspective of the rights of obese people.  

Ultimately, I think what's most interesting to me is the rather casual way in which articles like the one in the Times mention these claims.  The type of stereotyping so casually offered in this article's description of researchers' work may not be the most troubling we face in this world of bias and hatred.  But still I wonder.  My parents were short, so were my grandparents.  I guess that makes me (at least) the third generation. Is that enough?  

Posted by Bill Araiza on May 12, 2010 at 06:32 PM | Permalink

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Not to mention, this stigma could actually account for some of the effect - short and/or fat people could be more likely to be arrested for or convicted of crimes. A "driving while fat" effect.

Posted by: anon | May 12, 2010 7:10:21 PM

Art vs. Science?

In the same day's paper as the article linking height to crime (which, as you note, was in the Arts section), there was an article on short people (in the Science section), citing research that suggests no correlation between height and social success. The article in the Science section also quotes Randy Newman, so it's clearly authoritative.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/11/health/11brod.html

Posted by: Alice Ristroph | May 13, 2010 1:35:53 PM

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