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.]