All posts filed under: Criminology

Rethinking Gender, Sexuality, and Violence

Over the past two weeks, America has been rocked by the revelation that the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein has engaged in numerous instances of sexual harassment and possibly even sexual assault. In response, the actress Alyssa Milano began a social media campaign to raise awareness of these forms of abuse in the world at large, tweeting: While Milano may have had the admirable goal of drawing attention to a serious issue, the subsequent narrative that has been presented has not been entirely accurate, and a non-trivial amount of ugliness has also been unleashed. In the mainstream and on social media, we’ve been told that that all women live under constant threat and that all men are part of the problem.1 If a man had the audacity to say #MeToo and point out that he had also been a victim, he might have been ridiculed for being insensitive to women: One columnist admonished “nice guys” that they were most likely responsible for the bulk of the problem and bore the responsibility for fixing it.3 The …

Is There a Biological Case for Criminal Justice Reform?

Tell a woman the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and if she doesn’t cry, she’s a witch. In the 1500s, women who failed this test were burned alive. The test—clearly and painfully faulty—was not publicly questioned until Dutch physician Johann Weyer wrote “De Praestigiis Daemonum” (or “On the Tricks of Demons”) in 1564. Weyer correctly argued that many older women couldn’t cry due to atrophy of their lachrymal glands. Prosecutors were presented with a dilemma: reform the witch trial system or potentially kill innocent women. A paltry sum of sanity was brought to the system, and hundreds of potential deaths were prevented. Stanford University neurobiology professor Robert Sapolsky believes that today’s U.S. criminal justice system has similar biological blind spots. Just as witch prosecutors didn’t know about the lachrymal glands’ connection to tears, we don’t fully understand an untold number of connections between DNA, the brain, hormones, and other dynamic aspects of the human body. In Sapolsky’s latest book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, he argues that our justice system falls …

Is Crime Genetic? Scientists Don’t Know Because They’re Afraid to Ask

The U.S. has made unprecedented strides in the fight against crime. Both violent and non-violent crime are way down from their highs in decades past. This is great news, of course, but the success could easily lull us into a false sense of security, believing that we have the problem solved. Indeed, what if much of what we know about the causes of crime is either deeply flawed or flat out wrong? Imagine the trial of a new drug for an ailment that is as intractable as it is lethal. Researchers find 100 people with the disease and give the new drug to the first 50 patients who show up to the clinic. The next 50 trial participants are placed into a control group and given no treatment. The drug has a truly shimmering success rate. As you may have guessed, problems abound with this experimental design. For starters, because it isn’t randomized and because preexisting differences among the participants aren’t taken into account, the study can’t answer the question: Did the new drug cause …

Does Religion Cause Violence?

The streets of small rural towns in United States are typically tranquil places, but they are especially still on Sunday mornings. On those mornings, people dutifully report to their local places of worship, pay their tithes, listen to the sermon, sing the hymns, and bow their heads for the prayers. Religion is a cultural bulwark; it is a glue of the community. But southern piety, like all incarnations of faith, harbors a dark history. One spotted with racism and contempt for minorities, and incredulity that women might do much else than sing in the choir. What’s worse is that there is no shortage of scripture from which to justify these iniquities. And God, at least in the past it seems, provided ready dispensation. More insidious are the acts of violence and aggression committed under the auspices of religion: the crosses burned, the houses of worship destroyed, and the lives taken, all with the apparent sponsorship of no less than the “creator of the universe“. Religion, it would seem — all brands included, but some more …

The Bermuda Triangle Part II: Dangerous Research & The Risks Worth Taking

Another clever word Sets off an unsuspecting herd And as you step back into line A mob jumps to their feet – “You’re Gonna Go Far Kid,” The Offspring   The late J.P. Rushton represents one of the most brilliant, yet oddly obscure, psychologists in the last several decades. Few would deny that Phil Rushton possessed a stunning intellect; his work on human altruism, in fact, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988. Yet, when he is spoken of in circles both within and outside of academia now, brilliance is not the first adjective that gets tossed around. Rushton’s interest in differences among human population groups would lead him to begin asking “dangerous” questions about how those differences arose.  His book, Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (published in 1995) represented the culmination of much of his work on the topic to that point in his career. For Rushton, the book was his opus, but for many, it represented the detonation of an academic land mine. Make no mistake — Rushton was controversial before …

Criminology’s Wonderland: Why (Almost) Everything You Know About Crime is Wrong

When you say ‘hill’ the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you’d call that a valley.” ‘No I shouldn’t’ said Alice, surprised at contradicting her at last: ‘a hill can’t be a valley, you know. That would be nonsense—. – Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll Consider what it would be like to meet the Red Queen.  Not only is she boisterous and overbearing, but she’s also convinced that your perceptions of the world are wrong. Science often behaves like the Red Queen, leaning over to whisper a little bit of craziness in our collective ears.  At first, we gawk at the nonsense spewed in our direction, yet with time, we realize that the world really does work like her majesty said.  A new approach to studying crime is doing violence to our intuitions about where illegal behavior comes from.  In a prior discussion, we introduced you to why this new approach was necessary. Here, we take you further into Wonderland and acquaint you with some of what we …

Ferguson Effect Detractors Are Wrong

Violent crime in many American cities began rising in the second half of 2014, after two decades of decline. The Major Cities Chiefs Association convened an emergency session in August 2015 to discuss the double-digit surge in violence besetting its member police departments. Homicides at that point were up 76% in Milwaukee, 60% in St. Louis, and 56% in Baltimore, compared to the same period in 2014; the average homicide increase among 35 cities surveyed by the Association was 19%. “Crime is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said St. Louis Alderman Joe Vacarro in May. July 2015 was the bloodiest month in Baltimore since 1972, with 45 people killed in 30 days. Arrests, summons, and pedestrian stops had dropped in many cities, where data on such police activity were available. The violence surge continued into fall. Homicides in Baltimore reached their highest per capita rate in the city’s history. In October, Attorney General Loretta Lynch brought together over one hundred police chiefs, mayors, and federal prosecutors in another emergency meeting to strategize over the …