Archive for September, 2014

This one little trick

‘Peaceful Muslims’ is sometimes used to describe non-radical Muslims (i.e., almost all Muslims). For example, “peaceful Muslims need to speak out against ISIS.” What we have here is an adjective ‘peaceful’ that is attached to a big category. The specific adjective is meant to distinguish the majority from the minority. The minority of Muslims could be described as violent. The majority as peaceful. The trick is that the adjective is attached to the majority. This creates the impression that the majority of Muslims aren’t peaceful.

Ordinarily, we wouldn’t need a special qualifier for the majority of a category. It would not make sense to refer to ordinary Christians as ‘Christians who don’t picket funerals’, ordinary atheists as ‘non-Satanist atheists,’ ordinary teachers as ‘teachers who don’t have sex with their students,’ or ordinary scientists as ‘ethical scientists,’ unless I wanted you to think of the majority of people in those categories have the opposite trait.

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I have seen these signs (“Assaulting a SEPTA Transit Operator is a CRIME”) on a lot of trains in Philly. I wonder how much thought went in to the efficacy of such an intervention before these were posted.

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Let’s assume that the goal of the sign is to reduce the number of assaults on transit operators. Does the sign campaign work?

Argument for: The sign lets people know that they will be prosecuted if they assault a transit operator. So perhaps if they get angry at an operator, they will resist their violent urge in order to avoid these penalties.

Argument against: The sign lets people know that transit operator assaults occur on a regular enough basis that a sign was necessary. “You better not do this thing” is a signal that this thing is being done often enough that the people affected by it are alarmed. This sort of normalizes the violence. It lets people know that this is a thing that people do. It might add it to each person’s possibility repertoire.

I wonder if these things were discussed before the decision was made. How often is efficacy discussed in general by decision-makers? I want to know.

I can imagine experiments that test sign efficacy. You could randomly place signs on some trains on some routes, but you have the problem of contamination. Better would be to involve other subway systems and randomize between and within, and then look at pre-post assault rates (difference in differences sort of thing). I suspect that assault rates are so low that the study would be underpowered though. I know there is some literature on warning sign efficacy, but I am particularly interested in assault warning signs.

Also note that the warning sign could make riders think that violence on the train is a problem. This could make them feel less safe than they would have otherwise.



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