Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sutton's Law

There is a story currently playing it up in the local media about a politician who is on the ballot for Governor. The candidate is being investigated for plagiarism. The accusation is that he used a number of quotes in a document without attribution to the source of the quotes.

There is a bunch of finger-pointing going on; he claims to have not known that the patron wanted him to write it; he claims that he though using a ghost writer would be okay; he claims that the ghost writer is the one who used the un-cited quotations. The politician is under investigation by an ethical watchdog organization.

In the story played on one of the newscasts I saw this morning, the guy dismissed the charges as a misunderstanding and dismissed the ethical watchdog organization as "disproportionately investigating Republicans."

This is what brings to mind Sutton's Law. The robber Willie Sutton is reported to have answered a reporter's question "Why do you rob banks?" with the fairly obvious response "Because that's where the money is."

The citation, which is probably apocryphal, is the basis for the medical maxim known as Sutton's Law which is a basic diagnostic tool. The idea is that when doing a differential diagnosis, the physician should start by doing those tests which would confirm the most likely diagnosis.

Why is this relevant? Well, it occurs to me if the watchdog organization is disproportionately investigating one party over the other, (and I am not saying that they do, I would have to see the statistics to make that claim) there are two possible reasons for this. Either one party is disproportionately less ethical than the other, or the organization has a partisan axe to grind. Hmmm. We would seem to have a real conundrum here.

Sutton's Law would suggest that we run tests to see if the most likely diagnosis is, in fact, true. So what's the most likely diagnosis? A little Cartesian logic might be helpful here. What needs to happen is that both charges need to be investigated. Did the politician plagiarize his articles? Does the organization overwhelmingly investigate Republicans?

Regardless of their motives, the charge of plagiarism is the easier to investigate. The fact that the organization disproportionately brings charges against one party could be a bias, or it could be that is where the ethical problems are. So, investigate the ethical charges. Investigation will either vindicate the politician or give evidence that the organization is biased.

If the politician is found to be guilty, however, the organization is not in the clear. Do they truly bring a disproportionate amount of charges against one party? If not, then the organization is vindicated. If so, look at their methods. Do they investigate in an unbiased way?

I think the point here is that it is an interesting defense to attack your accuser; which is, after all, what the politician is doing. "I am not guilty. Here is my proof that the work is mine and not plagiarized." is a defense. "My accuser is investigating more people of my party than the other." is not.

The bottom line here is that it is immaterial what the motives of the organization are. The politician is either guilty or not. Either way, it is a bad day for the politician.

Wherever you are today, I hope you're having a great day!

Don Bergquist – July 15, 2010 – Lakewood, Colorado, USA


Anonymous said...

When people are very young, they tend to believe that the law is very important because it keeps people honest. Then they go through a period as they approach adulthood where it appears to them that the law is a sham because there seem to be a lot of dishonest people (maybe even some dishonest lawyers) in the world that the law has not stopped from doing their evil deeds.

The last stage I think is when a person gets even older and realizes that if the law wasn't there, there would be even more dishonesty and evil in the world than there is now. So I think that both the young and the old see the necessity for the law more than the people in the in-between ages.

When both sides are dishonest, then the question of whether or not the watchdog is monitoring both sides equally becomes more important.

But you are right. If you are guilty, you are guilty. But the people accused of being guilty often feel cheated because they know that a lot of people who were even more guilty than they were got away with what they did because the watchdogs did not catch them.

I hope that you and Saga have a nice summer and I hope that things improve at the swimming pool at your complex. In reference to one of your recent blogs about the swimming pool where you live, I have the same problem where I live. There are so many people in the pool that you can't swim laps (in fact, you are lucky to be able to swim 10 feet in one direction).

Anonymous Reader

Don Bergquist said...

Dear Anonymous Reader:

Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog! I really agree with your assessment. There is a theory that laws (and locks for that matter) are there to keep honest people honest.

I do not say that laws are there to stop people from doing bad things; just that they are there to provide society with a framework for judging what is acceptable behavior. Bad people will do "bad" things regardless of what laws may exist. The laws are there to keep good people from doing bad things and to provide society with not only an outline of the expected behavior, but with the mechanism for punishing those who break the social contract.

Thanks for asking about Saga. She loved our trip and all the people who fawned over her while we were visiting friends and family and is, I think, grooving on having her daddy home more often so that she can lay out in the sun as much as she likes.

Thanks again for your feedback!


Anonymous said...

Actually, when I was unemployed a few years ago I noticed that the dog who ran the house that I lived in seemed very happy about the fact that I was home a lot more than usual. In fact, I almost felt guilty when I finally got a job and had to leave the dog alone all day.

But there was one thing he liked more than me being unemployed. He was the happiest when we took him to the mountains. A few weeks ago you mentioned that you might take Saga to the mountains. I'd recommend that if you get a chance. I'm sure that she would appreciate it.


Don Bergquist said...

Dear Anonymous Reader:

Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog! Yeah, I have to agree, I do think that Saga is digging having her Daddy at home with her. She can beg for things much more frequently than when he disappears all day at the office.

We did go to the mountains last week. I will probably take her up for a hike again this week... we go to this place just outside Boulder. There are so many interesting things to sniff and to pee on! At least that is how she seems to see it.

We try to get up there once a week. When I am working, that one time comes on the weekend. It is nice being able to get up there when the park isn't packed.

Again, thanks for reading and commenting!