Patterico's Pontifications

5/24/2011

The New York Times Tries to Prove the Butterfield Fallacy True

Filed under: General — Aaron Worthing @ 11:27 am

The New York Times Tries to Prove the Butterfield Fallacy True

[Guest post by Aaron Worthing; if you have tips, please send them here.  Or by Twitter @AaronWorthing.]

So I was checking out various links and some site—I forgot which one—linked to this New York Times article, entitled “Steady Decline in Major Crime Baffles Experts” and I clicked on the link half-chucking to myself expecting the latest rending of the Butterfield Fallacy.  Fans of James Taranto’s excellent Best of the Web column have seen him literally pick on Fox Butterfield for years by naming the fallacy after him, as follows:

The classic example is: Prison populations continue to rise, despite a declining crime rate. The implication is that lower crime is evidence that tough punishment or, in this case, aggressive police work, is needless, when a more logical interpretation is that it is evidence of its effectiveness.

There may well be a good argument that the costs of these policies–to the taxpayers, to innocent people who are inconvenienced, even to the guilty–are not worth the benefits to society. But it takes a weird ideological predisposition to assume that the benefits are an argument against the policies.

Thus, I half-expected to see version 1,001 of that meme, get a chuckle and maybe even send it to the Wall Street Journal tipline for Taranto as I clicked on the link.  What I actually saw, however, was a little different.  First was a challenge to the belief that crime is driven by economics:

The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years, a development that was considered puzzling partly because it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession.

And it goes on a bit covering that, but then as advertised they got to the Butterfield Fallacy:

Nationally, the drop in violent crime not only calls into question the theory that crime rates are closely correlated with economic hardship, but another argument as well, said Frank E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

As the percentage of people behind bars has decreased in the past few years, violent crime rates have fallen as well. For those who believed that higher incarceration rates inevitably led to less crime, “this would also be the last time to expect a crime decline,” he said.

But there are several interesting things about that.  First it is completely fallacious to pretend that very much can be known for a fact when it comes to sociology.  Because of the moral and ethical limitations on human experimentation, it is virtually impossible to achieve anything like a “controlled experiment” in this context.  There are in fact a large number of factors to consider.  For instance, as noted in the article, truthfully the crime rate in reality only reflects the rate of reported crime.  If the actual crime rate remains the same, but less crime is reported, then people can claim with a straight face that crime has been reduced.  And other factors can intrude.  For instance, the article traces these declines in the crime rate back between one and three years.  Well, I can think of one event that conservatives asserted would reduce crime that occurred about a year ago, and I can think of another that occurred three years ago.  And that is only one of many factors I could imagine, which might be partly responsible for this trend.

But truthfully, because we cannot control for all potential factors—and given the complexity of human personality, it is hard to even identify all potential factors.  One can only guess why a thing like this occurs.  And I think Taranto understood that, since he said things that like the reduction of crime “is evidence of [a policy of increased incarceration’s] effectiveness.”  He didn’t assert it proved his theory correct, only that it provided some evidence of it.  But isn’t this interesting that the only time I can recall where the New York Times even takes notice of the theory that higher incarceration rates lead to reduced crime is the moment they attempt to rebut it?  Indeed, this instance of reduced crime rates and reduced prison populations would actually appear to be an aberration from prior trends–prior trends that the New York Times tried to minimize by inventing the Butterfield Fallacy in the first place.

[Posted and authored by Aaron Worthing.]

26 Responses to “The New York Times Tries to Prove the Butterfield Fallacy True”

  1. looks this is part of a way larger trend

    According to BJS figures, the rate of violent crime victimization in the United States declined by more than two thirds between the years 1994 and 2009.

    I’d note that the median age of the US pop has risen probably about 5 years in that time

    happyfeet (a55ba0)

  2. Make that three things that conservatives have suggested would bring down crime rates.

    Foxfier (24dddb)

  3. Foxfier

    ah, i am sure you could come up with 40 explanations. some are more valid than others but truthfully you won’t be able to prove what was predominant or effective.

    Like some other factors to mention.

    1) obama is on the job (i mean we have to be logical about this).

    2) maybe the election of obama has made minority groups feel more positively part of america.

    3) maybe there has been a hidden religious revival led by glenn beck.

    and we could go on and on. no way to know what factor makes the difference.

    Aaron Worthing (e7d72e)

  4. i was at a public meeting where an LAPD officer pointed out that crime started dropping 18 years after Roe v. Wade…

    my6 other question is, doesn’t Andrew have recourse under anti-slapp law?

    redc1c4 (fb8750)

  5. also I would guess cable/satellite penetration has risen 15-20% in that time

    happyfeet (a55ba0)

  6. the 94-2011 span I mean

    happyfeet (a55ba0)

  7. Youts have more access to creating virtual mayhem which allows them to continue to eat and sleep at home every night.

    Makewi (0864f9)

  8. good point

    happyfeet (a55ba0)

  9. As the percentage of people behind bars has decreased in the past few years, violent crime rates have fallen as well.

    Is it the ‘rate’ at which people are incarcerated? Or is it the absolute number of people who are incarcerated that has the biggest impact on crime?

    Society can incarcerate a tiny percentage of the population…. but if those incarcerated were 100% of the criminals, there would be zero crime.

    steve (369bc6)

  10. Of course, perhaps crime has declined because it has become plain to would be criminals that they will go to jail for long stretches of time. The increased incarceration rate has been noticed. The distinct possibility of spending years of one’s life behind bars has caused some to reconsider.

    Mike Giles (a0a8cc)

  11. Aaron Worthing -
    Quite agreed, but still fun to play the game for a bit!

    Foxfier (24dddb)

  12. foxfier

    agreed. have at it.

    Aaron Worthing (e7d72e)

  13. Another potential factor that may be in play here. The number of people with CHL’s has skyrocketed since Obama was elected. AND the number of people who have purchased guns for home protection has likewise skyrocketed. Most gun stores jokingly list Obama as Salesman of the year. so it is entirely possible that simple self preservation may be in play here.

    Rorschach (c5574d)

  14. We should not underestimate the astronomical increase in fraud related (Credit card, Check, Counterfeit, identity theft) crimes over the past 15 years.
    Former drug dealers/addicts/bangers have gravitated to these types of hustles, as they have become “mainstreamed” among the criminal community….everybody has learned how to do it, and these crimes offer way less potential criminal liability along with no pressure to maintain turfs and/or supply, in most cases. And these cases usually do not count as “serious” crime, if they are even counted at all.
    With none of the old geographical constraints in place and with the possibility of any real law enforcement followup slim and none, it is seen as a no brainer when compared to street crimes
    and the risk of catching a violent or strike eligible felony.

    Andrew (43525c)

  15. The decrease in crime matches the increase in the availability of free porn.

    Coincidence?

    jim2 (6482d8)

  16. Andrew – and, overall, a trade-off involving more fraud-related crime and less violent street crime seems like an improvement.

    aphrael (e0cdc9)

  17. seems like an improvement…and sets them up to be leading figures in a future Progressive administration.

    AD-RtR/OS! (b8ab92)

  18. Aphrael, it is still crime, and they are still criminals, reproducing new criminals.
    We (and our banks) still pay.

    Andrew (43525c)

  19. Along with what Andrew said, I suspect that part of the reason the prison population has dropped (while violent crime has continued to drop) is that most of those released are those convicted of other minor offenses, mostly drug or alcohol-related, who don’t commit violent crimes and have been let out because of overcrowding.

    deepelemblue (ea26b9)

  20. Yeah so the anti-porn feminazis are responsible for a rise in crime.

    DohBiden (15aa57)

  21. Joe Conason also believes that taxes should be raised too. He and new york slimes seem to be made for each other.

    DohBiden (15aa57)

  22. I’d also venture that it might be because more & more states have become more 2A friendly whether shall issue or constitutional carry. An armed society is a polite society

    PMain (27ccc0)

  23. The nationwide statistics need to be also broken down by states. States with right to carry concealed weapons show reduced violent crime. I have never seen a reliable study of per cent of gun ownership and crime rates by state. Keeping in mind the old saw about statistics and lies. Of course we can not look at racial composition so maybe it is a waste of time to do an objective study that will be dismissed as biased.

    dunce (b89258)

  24. hello sarah welcome to the first Team R debate what you are in

    thank you like I always say buck up or stay in the truck and boy America I am bucked up tonight!

    Yes you are Sarah and you have the first crack at tonight’s first question. Sarah Palin, what year is it?

    You know I am so glad you asked that cause I think that’s not just something I wanna know it’s something the American people wanna know too! And you know what? If it wasn’t for that lamestream media carrying water for the democrats that would be an issue very much in front of the American people tonight – so, yes – definitely.

    happyfeet (3c92a1)

  25. Um. Mr. Feet isn’t obsessive. Not at all. I’m still convinced he has a big, big poster of her over his bunk. It would explain a great deal.

    Simon Jester (c9ae28)

  26. The gold standards for crime statistics are two public databases – National Crime Victimization Survey and the FBI murder statistics. What makes me slightly suspicious is that both of these data sets are under the management of the DOJ.

    DOJ has, by law, been publishing the NCVS since 1972. These are enormous volumes sliced and diced for both victim and offender by race, age, gender, economic status, relationship, urban/suburban/rural and others. What they showed with great consistency was that if you are a white male and you are assaulted, the assaliant is ten times more likely to be black than white and two and a half times more likely to be Hispanic than Anglo. As Thomas Sowell points out, 30% of the murders in the US are committed by 2% of the population – black males between the ages of 15 and 34. Is it politically incorrect to report that blacks commit crimes?

    Is Holder cooking the books?

    Arch (0baa7b)


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