Tiptoeing through reader comments


At the risk of painting myself a lemming, I like to read online reviewers’ comments. I use them as research in buying decisions. I also use them as a temperature gauge for public sentiment.

The scientist in me knows these comments can be — and often are — of dubious merit. It’s a free world and people can post whatever their little hearts prompt them to write.

As such, I’m often vexed by a quasi-statistical aspect of the comments. This is best demonstrated by a recent shopping dilemma.

I wanted to buy a new ukulele — no Tiny Tim jokes, please. I checked several sources. One model got either very good or very bad ratings, with almost none in the middle. Another, similar model got universally glowing reviews, but there were only a few total comments. Which then is a better gauge? Mixed reviews or low base rates?

I turned to ukulele-specific discussion boards. Surely these would lend more qualified perspectives. Mostly they just provided more vehemence in opinions. So much for research.

Social and political opinions are far more perilous. Again, an example helps clarify things. I recently read an article by Ted Gest, Can a Police “Nudge” Stop Repeat Criminality, published by the Crime Report. The piece describes a crime prevention conference held recently in Washington, D.C.

At the meeting Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, and criminologist John Laub, former director of the National Institute of Justice, discussed ways police can expand their roles beyond the traditional responses to crime.

When most of us think about the police, we imagine them chasing bad guys, writing traffic tickets and arresting people. Ginned-up “reality” shows like Cops feed this perception. Many old line crime-fighting types like to flatter themselves with the idea that a police officer’s primary job is to enforce laws.

I’ve heard a lot of police co-workers say something along the lines of “I’m cop, not a %&$#@! social worker.”

News flash: Yes, you are. You are a social worker. Police are a social worker upon whom the people have vested (in the words of criminologist, Egon Bittner) the authority to distribute “… non-negotiable coercive force employed in accordance with the dictates of an intuitive grasp of situational emergencies.”

It doesn’t feed the macho, hero fantasy to construe it that way, but that’s what it is. Innumerable studies prove it. Everywhere police workdays have been researched, scientists conclude that cops spend more than 90 percent of their day doing something other than dealing with matters of criminal law.

We should be glad they do. They find lost children. They arbitrate disputes. They check on the elderly and infirmed. They watch for things that shouldn’t be happening. They keep public order. We need them to do these things — in addition to the law enforcement aspects of their jobs.

This then gets us back to Gest’s “nudge” article. The thrust of the piece was to highlight a crime prevention technique championed by a number of experts that — as the name suggests — nudges people away from crime. As Gest states, “Bueermann and Laub embraced the ‘nudge’ theory made popular in a book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who described how people can be nudged to make better choices about how they live their lives.”

Here’s where things get sticky. Cass Sunstein is a controversial character from the political left. One malcontent reader commented, “… any book by Cass Sunstein, a socialist can’t be helpful in or to the United States. Second, cops arrest bad guys, or at least return people to the railroad tracks of life or arrest them. To expand their role into social workers or other helping professionals dilutes their role in a free society.”

This comment typifies the kind of uninformed reductionism that nullifies the value of online commentary. It does so because it is an ad hominem fallacy. So what if Sustein is a socialist? Henry Ford was a devout anti-Semite. Should we eschew Ford cars because he held, then popular, but hateful views?

Sometimes we should. Sometimes not. For better or worse, bad people occasionally have good ideas. The dictates of crime prevention don’t afford the smug self-congratulatory luxury of throwing out good ideas that come from bad sources, but that’s just MY opinion.

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via pate.matthew@gmail.co