Needing to study both facts and perceptions, NYC crime edition

How do we put together data on crime and people’s perception of crime?

Photo by cottonbro studio on

Emotional stories speak louder than facts, perhaps especially in a city as storied as New York. Writing of the city’s crime narratives during a much more dangerous era, Joan Didion wrote of observers’ “preference for broad strokes, for the distortion and flattening of character and the reduction of events to narrative” — in other words, the nearly universal desire to make stories out of feelings, and then believe them. And when people ask me if “New York is safe,” they don’t want to know about numbers. They’re asking about feelings.

How people perceive crime, and how politicians represent it to the electorate, has less to do with data and more to do with vibes. In October, while fact-checking the claims of rising violent crime that drove many midterm campaigns, the Pew Research Center’s John Gramlich noted that “the public often tends to believe that crime is up, even when the data shows it is down.” Data from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that there’s no increase in violent crime across the board in the US, and yet for most years in the last three decades, the majority of America adults thought there was more crime nationally than the year before, even though the opposite was true. Indeed, over three-quarters of those polled in October by Politico/Morning Consult said they thought violent crime was rising nationally and 88 percent said it was increasing or remaining the same in their own communities.

This is why sociologists and others need to study not just what is happening, the facts, and the real numbers. Perceptions also matter and may matter more so as they can drive emotions, behavior, and policies.

This is clear consistently in the area of crime and violence where what people think is thinking may not match reality. For decades, particular perceptions about crime have influenced actions. See, for example, how it plays out in suburban settings. Instead of zooming out and looking at the big picture, certain narratives can prove powerful and persistent.

Thus, presenting facts is not always an effective approach. In this particular case, what would be an effective narrative that would better match the figures?

History – facts = sociology?

Lamenting how history is taught in today’s schools, one writer argues that history without facts is just sociology:

My son’s teacher confirmed that this is broadly true. The teaching of history in British schools is increasingly influenced by US methods of presenting the past thematically rather than chronologically. Thus pupils might study crime and punishment, or kingship, and dip in and out of different centuries. Consequently, dates lose their value. So 1605, which for me means the Gunpowder Plot, for my son simply means that he is five minutes late for games.

I didn’t argue with his teacher, and in any case there is more than one way to skin a cat, as Torquemada (1420-1498) knew. Besides, a slant on history that was good enough for two of our greatest historians, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, ought to be good enough for me. The subtitle of their enduringly delightful 1930 book, 1066 And All That, was A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings, and 2 Genuine Dates.

Maybe it wasn’t crusty American academics but Sellar and Yeatman, having a laugh, who really popularised the notion that history can be taught largely without dates. “The first date in English history is 55BC,” they wrote, referring to the arrival of Julius Caesar and his legions on the pebbly shores of Kent. “For the other date, see Chapter 11, William the Conqueror.” They didn’t specify the year in which the King of Spain “sent the Great Spanish Armadillo to ravish the shores of England”.

Whatever, I can see the logic of going down the thematic rather than the chronological route. And I made sympathetic noises when my son’s teacher explained that “it’s helpful for those pupils who struggle to take in lots of facts”. But even if we leave out dates, aren’t facts what history is all about? The rest, as they say, is sociology.

This is not an unusual complaint: the next generations always seem to know less history and perhaps even more troubling is that they don’t seem to care.

A couple of other thoughts:

1. Why can’t you have both dates and thematic approaches? Knowing dates doesn’t necessarily know that a student knows what to do with the information or that they know the broad sweep of historical change.

2. I think the argument in the final sentence is that sociology is devoid of facts. While sociologists may indeed care about certain topics (such as race, class, and gender) that others don’t care as much about, we also care about facts. For example, many sociology undergraduate programs have students take statistics and research methods courses. We don’t want students or sociologists simply interpreting data and information without having their findings be reliable (replicable) and valid (measuring what we say we are). There is a lot of debate within the field about how we can best know about the world and determine what is causing or influencing what. This is not easy work since most social situations are quite complex and there are a lot of variables at play.

3. Why can’t history and sociology coexist? As an overgeneralization, history tends to tell us what happened and sociology helps us think through why these things happened. Why can’t sociology help inform us about history, particularly about how certain historical narratives develop and then become part of our collective memory?

Copyrighting time

David Kravets at Wired reports on a copyright lawsuit that seems to attempt to enforce a copyright over data about time itself:

The publisher of a database chronicling historical time-zone data [Astrolabe] is claiming copyright ownership of those facts, and is suing two researchers for re-purposing it in a free-to-use database relied on by millions of computers….The researchers’ publicly available database was being hosted on a server at the Maryland-based National Institutes of Health, which apparently has removed the data at the request of Massachusetts-based publishing house, Astrolabe. The publisher markets its programs to astrology buffs “seeking to determine the historical time at any given time in any particular location, world-wide,” and claims ownership to the data in its “AC International Atlas” and “ACS American Atlas” software programs.

Wired posted a copy of Astrolabe’s complaint.  Digging into it a bit, here are the main facts alleged:

9. Defendant [researcher Arthur] Olson’s unauthorized reproduction of the Works have been published at, where the references to historic international time zone data is replete with references to the fact that the source for this information is, indeed, the ACS Atlas [emphasis added].
10. In connection with his unlawful publication of some and/or any portion of the Works, defendant Olson has wrongly and unlawfully asserted that this information and/or data is “in the public domain,” in violation of the protections afforded by the federal copyright laws.
[11. and 12. The same as 9 and 10, except naming second defendant Paul R. Eggert.]

In other words, based on this complaint, it seems that the researchers simply took facts (e.g., “in 1900, Greenwich Mean Time +3 was defined as the longitude running from…”) and incorporated them into their own database.

If this is true, Astrolabe, as Wired points out,

faces the tough challenge of overcoming a 1991 Supreme Court decision [Feist v. Rural Telephone Service Co.], concerning a company that harvested listings from a phone company’s telephone book and re-published them. The court ruled that “copyright does not extend to facts contained in [a] compilation.”

Unfortunately, I’m guessing that Astrolabe filed this lawsuit simply to scare Olson and Eggert into a quick settlement well before a judge rule on the merits of their claim to use this data under established copyright law.  In part, my surmise is based on the counsel Astrolabe retained.  Their complaint is signed by Julie C. Maloney, an attorney who appears to be a solo practitioner based out of a small town in Cape Cod in Massachusetts.  Although she doesn’t have a law firm website, a bit of Internet searching appears to confirm that land use/zoning rather than intellectual property is her legal specialty.

While I don’t know Ms. Maloney or her professional reputation and am sure she is a capable advocate, these facts don’t suggest that Astrolabe is seeking a discussion on the legal merits of copyright law.  On the contrary, Astrolabe appears (1) primarily concerned with saving money by going with a solo practitioner rather than a bigger law firm, (2) incapable of finding a copyright-specializing attorney willing to take their (weak) case, or (3) both.