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January 4, 2006 - Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Column: Crime Is More Puzzling Than Rocket Science

By Dan Gardner

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

There is a social science devoted to the study of crime. It is called "criminology." There are thousands of criminologists around the world doing all kinds of interesting research that is published in journals and books. Anyone interested in crime and how to deal with it should consult this work.

The preceding paragraph should be unnecessary. You don't have to tell people worried about cancer that there are experts called "oncologists" who know a thing or two about the subject. Want to sue someone? People know they should call a lawyer. Can't keep track of your money? Talk to an accountant. Need some wiring done? Get an electrician. We know this. There are lots of things we know little about and we value the expertise of people who know more.

But when it comes to crime, everyone's an expert.

Liberal leader Paul Martin, commenting on the Boxing Day mayhem in Toronto, said "I think more than anything else, the shootings demonstrate what are, in fact, the consequences of exclusion." Interesting theory. Anything to support it? Maybe, but Mr. Martin didn't share it with us.

In the Toronto Star, reliably right-wing writer Rondi Adamson scolded Mr. Martin. "I think, more than anything else, the shootings demonstrate that Canada's justice system is too soft on violent crime and brutes out there know it." Again, an interesting theory. Any evidence, Ms. Adamson? Apparently not.

Also in the Star, loyally left-wing writer Linda McQuaig was a little more sophisticated. She actually cited one of those elusive criminologists as saying there is plenty of evidence that "poverty, economic disparity and social marginalization are among the factors that lead to crime." She then noted it was 10 years ago that thenpremier Mike Harris reduced welfare payments in Ontario. "The young kids in those vulnerable families are now teenagers. Recently, there's been an upsurge in violent crime by gangs of teenagers. Is it far-fetched to think there might be a connection?"

That's certainly a better-developed theory. But Ms. McQuaig's claim of a recent "upsurge in violent crime by gangs of teenagers" is questionable. She doesn't provide any data for Toronto and she doesn't compare Toronto to other cities in Ontario, so who knows? Her argument is really just a gussied-up version of the logical fallacy known to junior philosophers as post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).

Post hoc thinking is the standard mistake of first-year sociology students, fulminating politicians and sloppy pundits. We hear it all the time. Here's a version of it that's being passed around quite a bit these days: After Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York City, violent crime plummeted; therefore Rudy Giuliani caused violent crime to plummet. Sounds pretty convincing. Heck, let's do what Rudy did.

It's so neat and simple -- until you learn that violent crime in New York City actually started to fall three years before Rudy Giuliani became mayor and that other American cities that did things very differently experienced equal or greater crime drops. That makes things a little more complicated. And it's just the beginning of the complications. In fact, New York's crime drop is so complex that criminologists who have studied it for years are still not sure about all its components and how they worked together. One of the major books on the subject is appropriately titled New York Murder Mystery.

In the Globe and Mail recently, a columnist declared that beating gun crime in Toronto is "not rocket science." She is -- unintentionally - --right. It's harder than rocket science. Rocket science involves chemistry and physics, but crime is ultimately about the human mind. Combustion and g-forces are merely an amusing puzzle next to the psychology of homo sapiens.

A sensible person would approach the subject with caution and respect, but of course that's not happening for the simple reason that crime, unlike rocket science, involves human nature. And that introduces ideology. There's no right-wing approach to aerodynamics, no left-wing take on ballistics. But crime involves people and so we use our intuitive sense of who people are and what makes them tick -- which is the very core of ideology -- to decide what we should do about it.

That's why references to solid criminological research are as rare as Liberals in Alberta. Why bother? Everyone from the man in the street to the prime minister is sure they know all about it. Research? Evidence? Facts? That stuff's for professors, poindexter.

The Globe columnist who wrote that crime control isn't rocket science declared with perfect confidence that the solution lies in tougher sentences and more social programs. Evidence? None offered.

Stephen Harper went further and dismissed the very idea that crime needs to be studied. "There is no making sense of senseless violence," he wrote in a recent op-ed. "There is no point in trying to understand a criminal act for which there is no excuse."

I suspect Mr. Harper wouldn't dispense similar pearls to someone stricken with cancer. No, he'd probably call an oncologist. Then he'd shut up and listen.

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