What causes crime?

There is something we find uncomfortable about a world without obvious answers, which is one reason, of course, why we cling stubbornly to our dominant views of crime. Our thirst for certainty may also explain why a number of theories about crime have, when stated boldly, gained alarming and unjustified popularity.

This quote from Criminal by Tom Gash falls right into the recent theme on this blog.

I’ve just started this book, and I’m not entirely sold on its premise yet. But it does a good job of framing how public policy and discussion can be captured by a false dichotomy. And seemingly because the simple narratives fill a painful void – we don’t know why people commit crimes and it’s probably too complex to ever submit to an single, easily expressed answer.

Gash essentially argues there are currently two dominant explanations for “why” someone commits a crime:

The first I call the ‘Heroes and Villains’ view, because of its moral emphasis and its central premise that those who commit crime must be confronted by the full force of the justice system to avoid society becoming corrupted. The second I call the ‘Victims and Survivors’ view, reflecting the argument that crime is not simply a selfish choice but often one forced by adverse circumstances…

This dichotomy between evildoers and victims of circumstance is quite evident in the world around us. Take the war on drugs and it’s more recent backlash, which has so often been a proxy for deterrence.

I’ve myself strongly argued against deterrence, leaning heavily into arguments about social context, learned norms and identities, and, ultimately, path dependence.

But this is really too simple.

Think of the last time you committed a crime (contrary to our Heroes and Villains view, most of us have) – or, if you are in the minority, think of a recent case you know of. Then consider the forces at work affecting your behaviour. I am certain that you will most likely uncover layer upon layer of possible influences, many considerations interacting in complex ways to facilitate the crime in question.

As Gash notes, “motivation” is too blunt a tool for what we are trying to accomplish. In fact, crime appears to be highly specific and contextual, and we’re ignoring profound economic, social and technological shifts.

There probably is neither one reason or one answer.

As always my emphasis

There probably isn’t one reason

I finally finished The Hidden Half. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and ties together much of my reading and thinking over the past year or so.

As a recovering determinist, I relish the celebration of uncertainty and the unknown. I’ve written quite a bit as I’ve read along. But here’s one more thought – the implications of uncertainty for silver bullets.

As much as we try to make the world bend to our will, there likely isn’t just one reason for anything. And so there probably isn’t one solution for it either.

…The biggest things are unusual by definition. Unusual things often result from an alignment or interaction of many circumstances – that’s why they turn out big. By their nature, these will be harder to understand. However, this does not mean we have failed to research them as well as reasonably possible: in a world of enigmatic influences, research rigour does not equal nailing down. The best answer might be that there is no answer.

The bigger the thing you’re trying to tackle or explain, the more influences it will likely have. Including ones you can’t see or measure. If you remove any of these jenga blocks, will your notion stand up?

This makes transplanting explanations or “solutions” from one context to another incredibly problematic. Your idea may have “fixed” the problem over there – and that’s a big if. But do you really know why? What about all the factors underlying that?

History is littered with simple solutions to complex problems and we’re all prone to creating panaceas. Modern democracies, especially, incentivise simple explanations rather than waiting, seeing and experimentation.

But the world defies being put in a box.

This is why public policies so often miss or fail entirely. Complex problems have complex causes and likely require nuanced and adaptable solutions. That it’s worked before or fits a particular world view isn’t enough.

…A favourite big thing, a silver bullet, has so many advantages: it’s easier to sell, to describe, to understand, to put into practice. But whether the thing we pick would travel, on its own, to another context is another question. Silver bullets seldom work once, never mind twice.

As I have written previously, what this requires is a little more humility, as well as institutions and a culture that can accept uncertainty and not knowing. Working with best approximations and striving to improve them.

As always my emphasis.

Why are we not keeping up?

There’s a fascinating line in the opening pages of Here’s Looking at Euclid:

By age 16, school kids have learned almost no math beyond what was already known in the mid-seventeenth century, and likewise by the time they are 18 they have not gone beyond the mid-eighteenth century.

If the point of schooling is to teach the current best understanding of the world, we appear to be failing.

Granted, maths is unlike science in that the old ways are built upon rather than overturned. We still learn Pythagoras theorem but not geocentrism.

This necessitates teaching newer mathematical discoveries in addition to what came before it. But is there really no recent mathematical discovery that would be useful to learn in school? Or at least help us shape more rounded adults, equipped for the modern world? Boolean algebra mayhaps?

I was thinking about this as I came across the following passage in The Lady Tasting Tea:

As measurements became more and more precise, more and more error cropped up. The clockwork universe lay in shambles. Attempts to discover the laws of biology and sociology had failed. In the older sciences like physics and chemistry, the laws that Newton and Laplace had used were proving to be only rough approximations. Gradually, science began to work with a new paradigm, the statistical model of reality. By the end of the twentieth century, almost all of science had shifted to using statistical models… Popular culture has failed to keep up with this scientific revolution. Some vague ideas and expressions (like “correlation,” “odds,” and “risk”) have drifted into the popular vocabulary, and most people are aware of the uncertainties associated with some areas of science like medicine and economics, but few nonscientists have any understanding of the profound shift in philosophical view that has occurred

It’s definitely my experience that people are more comfortable with a deterministic model of the universe than a probabilistic one. But why are so many of us stuck in old paradigms even as our world has become immensely sophisticated and complicated?

If nothing else, a more widespread probabilistic model would lead to more nuanced discussions around new research and challenges like climate change. A more modern understanding of mathematics would help us all get the most of technological advances.

Many of the books I’ve read criticising modern education see it as a relic of the industrial revolution and empire, geared towards producing identical widgets to keep things running smoothly. Can’t help thinking that’s right. And we haven’t changed it much.

As always my emphasis.

Gender inequality and linguistic determinism

Our preferred specification suggests that grammatical gender is associated with a 12 percentage point reduction in women’s labor force participation and an almost 15 percentage point increase in the gender gap in labor force participation. These associations are robust to the inclusion of a wide range of geo-graphic controls (including suitability for the plough) that could not plausibly have beenimpacted by language. Taken at face value, our coefficient estimates suggest that gender languages keep approximately 125 million women around the world out of the labor force.


Stumbled across this fantastic paper about the subtle affect that grammar can have on how we think. In this case, languages that sort nouns into gendered categories are associated with poorer labour market outcomes for women.

It reminds me of similar research showing that people from language groups that don’t clearly separate the future from the present (such as German) “save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese”.

And it seems to fit with the findings from many other fields:


Our results are consistent with research in psychology, linguistics, and anthropology suggesting that languages shape patterns of thought in subtle and subconscious ways….


It all comes back to my main takeaway from The Heretics: we really don’t have a good working model for how we form beliefs, make decisions or even behave. There are profound contextual factors affecting all of these. I’m not sure how we fix this.

(My emphasis)