All posts filed under: Criminology

The Dangers of Ignoring Cognitive Inequality

On Sunday 28 April 1996, Martin Bryant was awoken by his alarm at 6am. He said goodbye to his girlfriend as she left the house, ate some breakfast, and set the burglar alarm before leaving his Hobart residence, as usual. He stopped briefly to purchase a coffee in the small town of Forcett, where he asked the cashier to “boil the kettle less time.” He then drove to the nearby town of Port Arthur, originally a colonial-era convict settlement populated only by a few hundred people. It was here that Bryant would go on to use the two rifles and a shotgun stashed inside a sports bag on the passenger seat of his car to perpetrate the worst massacre in modern Australian history. By the time it was over, 35 people were dead and a further 23 were left wounded. Astoundingly, Bryant was caught alive. He was arrested fleeing a fire at the house into which he had barricaded himself during a shootout with the police. He later pled guilty to a list of charges …

Are Liberal Democracies ‘Rape Cultures’?

What are we to make of the claim that we inhabit a ‘rape culture’? Those making this claim seldom make it clear if they are being descriptive or expressive. A descriptive claim purports to tell us that something is or is not the case (“The exam is over”) while an expressive claim conveys subjectivity and sentiment (“That exam was torture!”). If the claim that we live in a rape culture is descriptive—that our culture condones or promotes rape—those making the claim must support it with adequate evidence. If they are not being descriptive, then the expressive meaning of the claim is not entirely clear. Let’s begin by considering a passage from an article by Alyn Pearson entitled “Rape Culture: It’s All Around Us,” which appeared in the (now defunct) feminist publication Off Our Backs in 2000: Rape is the common cold of society. […] We have assimilated rape into our everyday culture much as we have the cold. […] There is a silence surrounding the recognition that we live in a cultural environment where rape is endemic, but it is true. …

Biosocial Criminology and the Lombrosian Paradox

Last October, Quillette published an article by Hal Conick, crisply abridging Robert Sapolsky’s biologically based argument for criminal justice reform. Sapolsky, a neurobiology professor at Stanford University, has spent his career researching a range of topics including neuronal degeneration, infraspecific dominance hierarchies, stress, and violence, especially in relation to the behaviour of primates.  Over the years, Sapolsky has found that much of the antisocial behaviour we see and criminalize in human beings manifests similarly, biologically speaking, in our hominid relatives. Coupled with his extensive training in neuroscience, Sapolsky has used the findings of this simian research to argue for shifts in criminal justice policy—from the current system, which relies on an esoteric conception of ‘free will’ that can be needlessly retributive, to a system emphasizing public safety. In his 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Sapolsky argues that “you can’t begin to understand things like aggression, competition, cooperation, and empathy without biology,” a caveat he quite rightly issues, “for the benefit of a certain breed of social scientist who …

No, There’s No Evidence of a Murder Wave Targeting Gay Americans

“Why Are Murders Of Gay And Bi Men Up A Staggering 400 Percent?” asks the headline atop Michelangelo Signorile’s new HuffPost column, shared at least 13,000 times so far “Hint: This Alarming Surge Has Taken Place Since Donald Trump Became President,” adds HuffPost unsubtly in a tweet promoting the column. If your response was to wonder first whether such murders are in fact skyrocketing, yours is the right instinct. With the FBI reporting 11,821 male homicide victims in the U.S. in 2016, even a conservative estimate of how many are gay or bisexual yields a number of annual victims well into the hundreds, and perhaps significantly above that. Were such a number to jump by 400 percent, it would generate a noticeable blip of 1,000 or more extra gay male murder victims in a single year. Terrifying, right? But Signorile, it seems, is working with a different data set. Citing a report by an advocacy group called the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, he says the number rose “from four in 2016 to 20 in 2017.” Wait a …

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 …