Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tsunamis and Scientologists

Since this last post seems to have gotten some interest, here are some more thoughts (or at least some previous thoughts spelled out in greater detail).

If you remember this started with a humor piece about the horrors of living in LA. It's an old and pretty much mined out genre. It was already tired when Harlan Ellison wrote the definitive rebuttal ("Face Down in Gloria Swanson's Swimming Pool") thirty-four years ago and time has not made it any fresher. Ellison could make a meal out of this latest piece, picking through  the literary flaws or the dubious cultural observations but I have to admit, it wasn't those that really caught my attention; it was the sampling methodology. 

Of course, we don't expect writers to base their work on random samples but we can hope for representative ones and one way to accomplish that is by sampling broadly. Here we have any incredibly narrow sample, both geographically and culturally. When the author tries to generalize from the sample, he (not entirely sure of the gender)  ends up applying traits to the entire area that are only found in a tiny portion of either Hollywood or Venice Beach, specifically the most touristy parts (Not that there's anything wrong with being touristy, but it should make you nervous when an expert on a region doesn't seem to be familiar with anything you can't see from a tour bus).

Take the Tsunami signs. When you walk down to the beach in LA you almost always really do walk down. This is a rocky coast and most of the beach towns are fairly elevated (more than New York, for instance). The notable exception is Venice (which actually has canals, by the way). Venice is the only neighborhood I know of that's close to sea level. Thus it's the only place I've seen Tsunami warning signs.

Then there's the fear of Scientology the author claims all Angelenos have. In the tiny area of Hollywood the author is focusing on, signs of the church and its founder are everywhere. Literally within a two mile radius, you have multiple buildings, displays, festivals, people offering free personality tests, even an L. Ron Hubbard drive. Outside of that radius, virtually nothing and the subject of Scientology seldom comes up.

For reason that aren't entirely coincidental, the Groundlings, Second City LA and the Upright Citizen's Brigade are also in that same two mile radius, hence the author's belief that all Angelenos are fans of improv. 

It's like this through the entire piece. The author latches onto some characteristic found only in four or so square miles of LA and assumes it holds for the remaining four thousand. The result is that old story, if you take your data from an unrepresentative subpopulation and try to generalize, you're likely to come out looking like an idiot.

Now if I could just figure out how a link to this got into Felix Salmon's blog.

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