7.17.2009

Ahem...might it possibly be a correlation, and not a cause?

So apparently, grant money was spent to find the most frequent first names of criminals. Far be it from me to criticize anyone for studying a question of no discernible practical importance. But the article suggests that, since the most common criminal first names (among them Luke, Alec, Malcolm, Preston) are not all that common among babies generally, we are to conclude that having an unusual first name helped condemn them to a life of crime. The article warns:

New parents may balk at naming their newborn boys such tried-and-true but yawn-inducing names as Michael or David — but a new study shows that if they play it safe, they may be doing their babies a favor. Writing in Social Science Quarterly, Shippensburg University professor David Kalist says giving newborn males oddball, girly or strange first names may just help land them in jail.

The article speculates that having an unusual first name might subject a boy to teasing. The teased boys are then propelled into a life of crime to compensate for having an unusual name.

First of all, are these names all that uncommon? Luke, for example, is ranked #46 in the U.S. Second, and more important, it does not seem to have occurred to the author of the article or anyone quoted in it that either a) parents who give their kids unusual names might have a different parenting style than those who do not, and that that parenting style -- and not the name -- might be responsible for the criminal behavior, or b) certain names and naming habits are associated with different socioeconomic groups, and that socioeconomic groups in which these names are more popular might be those in which members are more prone to criminal behavior.

Hmmm. If all goes well in the next month and a half, I'm about to name my new baby a name that was once reasonably popular in England, and now is not even ranked in the top 1000 names. Am I condemning him to commit trespasses? The Today Show would like to reassure me that I am not. Sometimes, however, the refutation of ill-drawn conclusions is an even more ill-drawn conclusion:
TODAY looked at the list of 10 heading-for-trouble names and found an example of each that could refute the findings. Along with Baldwin and Hemingway, there’s pop singer-songwriter Garland Jeffries, film director Ivan Reitman, basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actors Luke Wilson and Luke Perry, black leader Malcolm X, legendary filmmaker Preston Sturges, Olympic gold medal boxer Tyrell Biggs, and a host of Walters — from Walter Cronkite to Walt Disney to Sir Walter Scott.

Well, then. Bless Today's crack reporting. Of course, if you find one exception to a scientific finding, the finding itself is BS. My grandmother smoked and never got lung cancer. Color me relieved, and bring on the cigs!

2 comments:

  1. If having an oddball, girly or strange first name (and what's the difference between "oddball" and "strange," anyhow?) may land boys in jail, then a significant number of my patients are doomed.

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  2. My sons have two names, an American one and a Chinese one (their mother is from China), An, Kai, and Xiang. An is the An of Tiananmen (An means peace), now it might be strange to Americans but these names are pretty common in China. Who are these people to say what is common or correct? How much do you want to bet these researchers are white and anglo saxon(ish)

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