Lucky Stars Why exactly have Guns N' Roses broken from the pack to become rock superstars, and not some other motley musical crew with equally bad attitudes, ubiquitous tattoos and extravagant histories of substance abuse? Why, too, are Barbra Streisand and Gloria Estefan at the tippy top, and not that similarly big-voiced songstress toiling away in the lounge at the downtown Holiday Inn?
Differences in talent, you say? Perhaps. But statisticians who have analyzed the superstar phenomenon in popular music offer another likely explanation: Dumb luck.
That's right. Researchers Kee H. Chung and Raymond Cox have discovered that super stardom may be a random phenomenon that plucks a "few lucky individuals" from among equally talented performers and blesses them with excessive popularity -- sort of like winning the lottery twice.
Chung and Cox examined the distribution of gold records between 1958 and 1989. During that time, 1,377 performers earned at least one gold record. Half of these artists won only one, while one out of six collected two.
But 11 percent of these performers received seven or more gold records -- and these gold diggers accounted for 43 percent of the 4,408 gilded platters awarded in the 30-year study period, Chung and Cox reported in the latest issue of The Review of Economics and Statistics.
The researchers computed what the distribution of gold records among these performers would be if it were based simply on chance and not differences in talent. Then they compared those figures to the actual distribution of gold records to the artists over the study period -- and made a remarkable discovery.
The two distributions were almost exactly the same, meaning that the superstar phenomenon could be entirely random, and not due to differences in ability, they wrote.
Chance likely works its wonders via the whims of disc jockeys, record execs and the marketplace -- and only among genuinely talented people, such as those good enough to win at least one gold record. These researchers don't argue that no-talents like you or me stand a chance of becoming juke box legends. This is statistics, after all, not magic.
They argue their numbers-crunching has social implications. If the exorbitant incomes earned by Frank, Aretha, Mick and Dolly from whopper ticket and album prices are rewards for unparalleled ability, "the superstar phenomenon may be socially admissible," they wrote. But if it's simply a matter of chance, then the "phenomenon may be perceived as unequitable."
Mothers And Sons Women who score high on psychological tests measuring dominance are more likely to give birth to boys, according to an article in the latest issue of the British Journal of Medical Psychology.
Medical researcher Valerie J. Grant of New Zealand reviewed six studies conducted since 1969 and found that in each "those women who later bore sons were significantly more likely to have scored higher on tests of dominance than those who later bore daughters."
In fact, the average score of women who gave birth to boys on tests measuring assertiveness, competitiveness and independence was as much as twice that of women who gave birth to girls.
Researchers aren't ready yet to say that the mother's personality type directly "causes" some babies to be boys and others to be girls. But "given all the above one would have to say that, as always, nature and nurture are inextricably intertwined," Grant wrote.
The 1975 Public Affairs Act: : Never Was -- But Not Forgotten
Who says Americans don't pay attention to public policy? More than four out of 10 persons surveyed in a recent national poll had a definitive opinion when asked whether the 1975 Public Affairs Act should be repealed.
One problem: There is no 1975 Public Affairs Act. There never was. Pollsters made it up -- naughty them! Still, 43 percent of those surveyed took a position aye or nay when asked whether the phony act should be repealed. (The remainder had no opinion -- the smarties.)
Actually, it's not the first time that Americans have been gulled by the 1975 Public Affairs Act. Nearly 17 years ago, George Bishop, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, first included questions about repealing the fictitious act in surveys of Cincinnati-area residents.
"We had the sense that people weren't at all well informed about many policy issues but give opinions to appear to be informed or simply to be cooperative," Bishop said. "So we decided to give them a real red herring" -- and the 1975 Public Affairs Act was born.
"The simple fact is that on a lot of big policy issues, there really isn't any informed public opinion," Bishop said.
To honor the 20th (un)anniversary of the 1975 Public Affairs Act, the Unconventional Wiz added a twist to Bishop's classic test of pseudo-opinions.
In a recent Washington Post national survey, the Wiz asked three slightly different versions of a question about repeal of the fictitious 1975 Public Affairs Act to three separate randomly selected groups.
The first version was Bishop's original question. In the second version, the words "President Clinton says" replaced the original "Some people say" in the introduction, while the introduction to the third version read: "Republicans in Congress say . . . ."
You guessed it: More than half of those questioned offered an opinion when given a partisan cue. And Democrats were far more likely to support repeal of the phantom act (and Republicans oppose) when told Clinton favored repeal -- but Republicans were far more likely to favor repeal when clued that congressional GOPers favored dumping it.
An Act of Ignorance More than four in 10 Americans surveyed had an opinion on the fictitious 1975 Public Affairs Act. Q. Some people say the 1975 Public Affairs Act should be repealed. Do you agree or disagree that it should be repealed? Agree ................... 24% Disagree ............ 19 No Opinion .......... 57 Source: Washington Post telephone survey of 501 randomly selected adults conducted Feb. 15-19. Margin of sampling error plus or minus 5 percentage points.