Saturday, 27 December 2014

Damn Statistics

     Mark Twain (crediting, perhaps mistakenly, Benjamin Disraeli) famously said there are "lies, damn lies, and statistics". Fox News appears to have warranted the addition of a new category: damn statistics. The following image has come across my Facebook feed several times in the last little while:

     I think this is one of the more egregiously irresponsible things I've seen this year. The numbers themselves are accurately reported from the FBI statistics, which you can confirm for yourself. But it's appallingly unhelpful to pick a statistic like that without giving appropriate background into how to interpret it. Reading it only as it appears above, you could be forgiven for concluding that white people are peaceful law-abiding decent folks, and black people are dangerous violent beasts, which is almost certainly what the people circulating this screen capture want you to believe. (Is that what Bill O'Reilly and Fox News want you to believe? I'll stop short of claiming that; all we have here is a screen capture taken out of context, and I'm sure a fair and balanced reporter would have taken great pains to explain the limitations and significance of the data.)

     So the first thing I'd like to point out about the actual data is this: it's compiled by the FBI from the reports of the nearly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies operating the United States. Each of those 18,000 agencies has its own staff, and its own standards and procedures for investigating, reporting and categorizing crimes. Not all of them report on the race of the suspect, and if you look at the FBI table, you'll see that 4112 murders are attributed to an offender of "unknown" race (and 249 "other", which I'll ignore for the purposes of this essay). That's almost as many murders as the total attributed to whites, a huge hole in the data if you're trying to establish a correlation between violence and race.
     How many of those 4112 murders were committed by whites and how many by blacks? There's no way to know from what's reported here. We probably shouldn't assume that it matches the proportions of the murders where race is reported, though, because the very decision to treat race as a relevant factor in reporting crime statistics may reveal institutional biases, either in the police agency or in its community or both. A police agency that tracks crime by race may be more prone to racial profiling, and thus more likely to catch black offenders than white ones. So, a fair number of those 4112 "unknown" murders may in fact be committed by whites who got away with it, and some of the 5375 murders attributed to blacks may well represent the wrongly accused.

     But, you might observe, even if all of the 4112 "unknown" murders were committed by whites, that still means that there were 8508 murders by whites and 5375 by blacks, which is still grossly disproportionate to their respective shares of the population at large. A race that makes up 13% of the population should not account for 39% of the murders!
     True enough, but there's some other important information missing from the FBI data: economics. We know (and have known for thousands of years) that there's a pretty strong correlation between poverty and violent crime; wealthier communities tend to be less violent than poorer ones. (I would say less criminal, but it's complicated; white collar crime is still crime, but it's not generally violent, and the worst white collar crime isn't even treated as crime at all.) We also know that in the United States, wealth disparities are huge, correlated with race. In 2009, the median income for white families was $62,525, and for black families it was $38,409. (The same table shows "Asian and Pacific Islander" median income at $75,027, which might explain the almost negligibly small 249 "other" murders I said I'd ignore.)
     So it would be interesting to see how the FBI stats would look if broken down by family income. I'd expect that once you correct for income, the murder rates of whites and blacks are much closer to the same. They're probably not quite equal, mind you, because many law enforcement agencies in the U.S. tend (intentionally or not) to be more zealous in pursuing black offenders than white. But they're equal enough that we should not be reinforcing these stupid and destructive prejudices.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

An Open Letter to John Maguire, ISIS, and Issuers-of-Threats Generally

     If I understand your recent video correctly, you're saying that as a Canadian I should expect terrorist attacks on Canadian soil, and that if I want to be safe, I should lobby my government to pull out of the military mission against ISIS. Presumably, you want me to fear that I or someone I care about (which, by the way, includes everyone) will be hurt or killed, so I will do as you say in order to avoid that. 
     I could just say you don't scare me, but I don't think that would be very helpful, since that's what a lot of people say when they're afraid. Instead, I want to explain to you exactly what's wrong with your threat from a logical and strategic perspective, because you're making some very serious errors in reasoning, and putting lives (including yours) in needless danger.

     First of all, you have a credibility problem, and it's not what you think. Your organization has taken great pains to make its threats credible by releasing videos to prove that it is willing and able to murder people. To be sure, you really do have a long way to go to make me actually fear you, because realistically, you don't really have the resources to make yourself a statistically significant danger. There are 30 million Canadians, after all, spread out over a vast territory; most of us are going to be pretty safe from you no matter what. Also, there are lots of other dangers that you can't control, and which are much more likely to kill me. A couple of years ago I had part of my bowel removed for Stage III colon cancer, and the chemo seems to have been successful, so I probably won't die from that, but maybe there's some lingering metastasis hiding in my organs somewhere, or maybe a completely new cancer will form, or maybe I'll have a heart attack or a stroke or get hit by a truck or freeze to death or get eaten by a polar bear (this is Canada, after all). Why should I fear you more than these things?
     But as I said, that is not the real credibility problem, and in fact solving that one will only make the real one worse. You see, I already believe that you're willing and eager to kill me if I don't comply with your demands. You don't really need to prove that. What you do need to convince me of is that you will not kill me if I do comply. In other words, you need me to trust you, and that's really hard when you spend so much effort trying to make me fear you. And this is especially a problem in the case of random terrorism, where people get killed for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You don't know -- or care -- who you're killing, and so you don't know that maybe the person you just killed had written letters to her MP demanding a change in policy, and had done everything you asked. So if you're just going to kill me anyway, regardless of what I do, why should I comply with your demands?
     It gets worse. Even if I do believe that you'll keep your promise and not kill me if I give you what you want, how do I know you won't demand something else later on and threaten me until you get that? You want me to trust you way more than I trust most people, and yet by murdering people and threatening to murder me, you're seriously undermining the basis for that trust.

     So, that's why I'm unmoved by your threat, and why it's not going to influence my behaviour in any way. I simply don't trust you to keep your part of the bargain if I comply. But there's another mistake I think you're making, too, and that's your failure to consider the broader context. You're talking as if you're in a position of power over me, but the kinds of things I need to fear from you are basically terrorist-type attacks. And the thing about most terrorist attacks is that they're cheap; powerful nation-states have conventional armies with military systems that are much, much more effective than car bombs and other improvised terrorist weapons. So yeah, it sure is scary to contemplate that some crazy might randomly kill me with a toaster, but here's the thing: I have a toaster, too.
     You think your group is special? You think you're badasses, and the rest of us should cower in fear of your might? Look, any idiot can improvise a way to hurt lots of people. You're not even the only ones claiming to be fighting for God. So if I should be afraid of making you mad by disobeying you, shouldn't I also be afraid of making some other crazy mad for obeying you? Heck, shouldn't you be afraid of making me mad? I have the same access to ordinary household items as any other Canadian; I can carry out terrorist-style attacks against you just as easily as you can against me. 
     Ultimately, that's why your threats do not move me. I, and people like me, have just as much ability to hurt others as you do. The only difference is that you are willing to do so, and I am not. That is not because you are stronger than I am; it is because you are more foolish, and have not yet recognized just how futile and evil violence is.