We’re trying something new here at AMB, shorter issue-oriented things where we hope to get a lot of discussion, in between the longer stuff we usually post, but which take a long time to write. Better known as actually blogging, I suppose.

To this end, I offer the very first one, the Carol Gotbaum case. Gotbaum was an alcoholic from Upper West Side Manhattan, traveling through Phoenix to Tuscon to go to rehab (it’s where everyone who is anyone these days goes). Depressed, relapsed (i.e., drunk) and facing the… insanity of modern air travel, she freaked out in the Phoenix airport. She got hauled off in cuffs. She died in her cell. Beyond that, wait for the inquest?

We discussed the issue of police brutality a fair bit over the last few months with Andrew “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” Meyer and that guy with a totally unpronounceable last name from UCLA, plus another one with a case from St. Louis. Now we’ve got Carol Gotbaum. Here’s the NY Times story and Judith Warner’s blog, which had some very interesting commentary. Some questions, then:

  • Was this brutality?
  • What should have happened here?
  • Being honest with yourself, what do you think you would have done?
  • Just how petty are airline bureaucrats these days, anyway?
  • Would you pay more for a plane ticket if you got better service? (Carol Gotbaum got pretty much the worst service possible.)

Have at…. I’m sure there are some other good links to this one, too.

Consider the following statistics:

  • 40% of University of Virginia (UVa) students consume an average of six or more drinks a week.
  • 24.4% of UVa students don’t care if their friends drink and drive.
  • 33.5% of UVa students don’t mind if their drinking causes problems for other people.
  • 16.5% of UVa students are too scared of the cops to call 911 when one of their friends has alcohol poisoning.
  • About one in twenty UVa students has gotten into a fight while drinking.
  • 25.4% of UVa students drink alone and/or go to frat parties without anyone there that they know.
  • 35.1% of UVa students will leave their drunk friend with a stranger.
  • 10% of UVa students who drink have been injured at some point because of their drinking.

Now, consider the source of these statistics, namely a web site that is supposed to convince UVa students that other students don’t drink. The idea is that students will be overwhelmed by how many of their peers do the right thing, thus causing students with drinking problems to abandon all of their foolish and irresponsible habits.

Of course, to make this argument more convincing, all of these statistics are provided in reverse. For instance, they assert that 60% of UVa students consume 0-5 drinks per week…

I guess you’ll have to excuse me if I’m still underwhelmed by those numbers.

Apparently, this is a popular approach to addressing alcohol problems at universities. You can even find consulting companies that will put together one of these “Social Norms” campaigns for your school. There are (at least) two things wrong with this picture.

  1. If I go to a crowded frat party or a popular bar that is turning people away at the door every Friday and Saturday night, I’m not going to be worried that too many of my peers will look down on me for drinking. On the contrary, I’m still going to be more worried that I’m never going to get through the crowd around the bar to get a drink of my own.
  2. If you can do the simple arithmetic that I did at the beginning of this post, then you can figure out that there are very large groups of students who do these things that you are not supposed to do. There are over twenty thousand students at UVa, and so I have to conclude that nearly a thousand of them have gotten in a fight while they were drunk. The first two rules of Fight Club might be not to talk about Fight Club, but they evidently still have quite a few members in their Charlottesville chapter.

The only part that I can’t figure out about all of this is why anyone would think that such a ridiculous campaign would work in the first place. Yes, people are very sensitive to what their peers are doing, but people also already have a pretty good idea of how much their peers are drinking and posters with these messages certainly aren’t going to change that.

PS – Please double-check to make sure that your friends would actually call an ambulance for you if you needed one. Apparently, a fair number of my peers wouldn’t.