30 December 2012

Death by firearm and its relation to health expenditure

An argument that often appears in the discussion of gun casualties is that adequate care for the mentally ill can reduce crime to a certain extent (see e.g. Joe Nocera's column in the New York Times.) This sounds intuitively reasonable, but the importance of the effect is less clear.

It is also difficult to find a relevant quantitative measure of health care quality, but I assume that health expenditure (per capita) is a reasonable proxy. Below, I plot the number of casualties (same data as in the previous post) as a function of expenditure, as a total amount and as GDP percentage (data from Wikipedia.)
There might be a very slight descending trend as a function of total expenditure, but scarcely any effect of the GDP percentage. The healthcare argument is mainly invoked with respect to the USA, but the graph tells a different story: high expenditure and high casualty rate. It is of course possible that the expenditure on mental healthcare is disproportionately low in the US, but indiscriminately throwing money at the problem will not make it go away.

Another interesting region is the lower left corner of the first graph: it is populated by Eastern European countries and former Soviet republics where the number of casualties and the health budget are both low. Are the mentally ill better taken care of in Azerbaijan than in the US ? I would not bet on it. What these countries have in common, however, is that they have fewer guns and lower inequality (see the previous post).

It is tempting to find a causality relation between two social problems, if only because solving one would automatically get rid of the other, but in the present case I have not seen a solid, data-based  argument.

29 December 2012

27 December 2012

Death by firearm, gun possession and the GINI coefficient

The recent tragic events in Newtown rekindled the debate on gun control and the interest in the correlation between gun ownership and gun-related deaths. The issue is clearly very complicated, and a single variable will not explain much, but it would still be interesting to plot the interdependence of the various parameters. Of course, I claim no causality relation between them.

The most obvious variable couple to plot is the number of gun-related deaths vs. the number of guns per capita (both retrieved from Wikipedia). When I was halfway through the data treatment I noticed that a similar graph was made by Mark Reid. The plot is below, in log-log representation, since both the x and y axes cover more than two decades:

The three-letter country code is retrieved from here. The data seems to follow a linear tendency (dashed line), but even in a log-log plot some deviations are clearly visible, such as the cluster of values at top center (dashed frame).

I decided to consider some additional (economical) parameters, and the results are quite interesting.  Another variable that could be correlated with gun violence is the economical inequality, quantified for instance by the GINI index. Plotting the number of firearm casualties versus this variable (I used the coefficient defined by the World Bank, fourth column in the table) yields the following graph:
The "anomalous" points in the first graph now follow more or less the same tendency as the other countries (the dashed line is a guide for the eyes). The gun ownership is used as color code (see the legend), but values between 2 and 20 are difficult to distinguish in this log scale. A nice feature is that the countries with low gun ownership (in blue) which were at the bottom left in the first graph also follow the tendency in the second one.

Visually, I would say that the GINI coefficient explains the data better than gun possession. What other variables might be correlated with gun-related deaths ? For instance, below is the GDP dependence (data from here):
For the USA, the relation between firearm deaths and gun ownership can be seen, for instance, here. How about the economical indicators ? I retrieved GINI values for the US states in 2010 and the number of firearm murders in 2011. The graph is below, in lin-log representation:

The GINI range (41-50) is much smaller than the global scale (12-65 percentage points) but there is a clear correlation. In contrast, there is almost no dependence on the GDP per capita:
In both graphs I left out DC, which is far to the right of the other points in both inequality (53.2)  and GDP (174500) with a y value of 77.

It would therefore seem that the inequality is strongly correlated to firearm casualties, both for the US states and for world nations.

23 December 2012

All the Pretty Horses

I have just finished reading Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. I would have thought that the sequence of stark dialogue and world-encompassing metaphor is a sure recipe for kitsch, but he manages to pull it off every time. And some of the sentences are as polished as one of Menashe's poems, with subtle rhymes, consonances and alliterations. This is how the last paragraph starts:

The desert he rode was red and red the dust he raised, the small dust that powdered the legs of the horse he rode, the horse he led.

5 December 2012

Latour and Woolgar's "Laboratory Life"

With Laboratory Life. The Contruction of Scientific Facts, published in 1979, Latour & Woolgar more or less launched the field of scientific anthropology. I think their constructivist view is a bit extreme, but I did find some very interesting observations, in particular in Chapters 4 and 5.

Here, however, I'm interested in the validity of the anthropological approach (as defined by the authors, pp. 27-30 in the 2nd edition, Princeton University Press, 1986) when applied to highly specialized fields.  In particular, they state explicitly (p. 28):

 We envisaged a research procedure analogous with that of an intrepid explorer of the Ivory Coast, who, having studied the belief system or material production of "savage minds" by living with tribesmen, sharing their hardships and almost becoming one of them, eventually returns with a body of observations which he can present as a preliminary research report.

On the face of it, Latour's claim that he can provide new insight into scientific activity even though (or, rather, precisely because) he is not trained in that specific discipline  is contradictory. The initial "bracketing" he invokes (p. 29) must at some point give way to familiarity, and this is not possible without (at least) the common language of the particular scientific domain.

Does the anthropological approach require a certain "simplicity" of the population under study? The anthropologist must on the one hand be "naive" enough, but on the other hand still be able to immerse himself in the culture in a few years. What happens if the subjects have a kind of specialized knowledge that is essential to their society ?

2 December 2012

Untranslatable concepts

In French, one can say Je suis seul (I am alone) or Je me sens seul (I feel alone), but nothing as baldly distressing as “I am lonely” or “I am lonesome.”
says Henry Cole in the New Yorker. Suggesting other lonely French words such as esseulé or délaissé would probably not change his mind, since they are arguably not an exact translation for lonely. Can one then say that there are words in one language without an identical counterpart in another language? As a second example, several people told me (with patriotic pride) that the Romanian dor cannot be translated in any other language. I have trouble seeing how it is substantially different from longing.

I believe this kind of affirmation (like many declarative sentences) can be read in a strong and a weak sense.
  • Strong interpretation: words in one language can convey meaning that cannot be expressed in another language. I would say that this position is obviously false, at least for living languages with a similar level of complexity.
  • Weak interpretation: words come with their own subtext and connotations, which do not survive translation. This is obviously true, but not particularly interesting. For instance, the gender of inanimate objects varies from language to language; so does the emphasis placed on it. Words are also colored by the literature that uses them (Proust's madeleine comes to mind; I do not believe finger cake has similar baggage).
Is there some intermediate and valid position that is strong enough to be relevant ? Where is Cole's own point of view on this continuum ?