Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cold-Blooded Statistics (25 Dec. 2014)

            Tying together some stories in the news at the end of 2014, from police shootings in the sense of police shooting "civilians" to police being shot, to "the campus rape crisis": We need to bring back the word and concept "disinterested," and we need more disinterested research in areas of social conflict. This is a truism, but it's difficult to achieve; recall that for years, maybe decades, there was little research on the medical uses of marijuana because the Congress of the United States — folks who weren't convinced that nicotine and ethyl alcohol (cigarettes and booze) are drugs — said that there were no benefits to marijuana, and, therefore there was no cause to spend public money looking for medical benefits.
            We need news reports where the first couple paragraphs aren't with some touching, human-interest "for instance" anecdote but a statistic: Number of times something horrific happens per 100,000 ______ (fill in variety of human) per year, or some more relevant unit of time.
            For instance ….
            How many civilians are justifiably or otherwise killed, maimed, wounded, or otherwise harmed each year by police? Assaulted or just hassled? It's hard to get statistics even for just the US, let alone for comparison across a number of countries and cultures.
            How many police officers are killed each year in the line of duty? A friend of mine in the justice system says he's pretty sure that most on-job deaths are from accidents, but he's not sure of much beyond that. Some years, police work makes the top ten for most dangerous jobs in the US, some years not. What are the dangers of police work, and how do the risks vary from role to role, from area to area in the US? In countries similar to the US
            I taught on a Midwestern college campus for 35 years, and it was a pretty safe place: one B&E at my house during the time, and I met the burglar and wasn't overly threatened. We had a couple murders near campus, and one major problem ca. 2000 with one of my students who was a serial rapist — convicted on six counts and imprisoned. And one of my students ca. 1990 had a run-in with police because of the rifles and automatic weapons in the trunk of his car (he was a gun collector and weird but licensed and not an immediate danger).
            By one definition of the word "rape" that has been applied on campuses, I've been raped by two women, but, possibly because of an insufficiently raised consciousness, I still don't believe I was in a legal or moral sense raped. Manipulated maybe; raped?, no. So I want to see some numbers on the rate per 100,000 per year of rapes and other sexual assaults on US campuses, and see how those figures vary given different legal, ethical, and colloquial definitions of the crimes or ethical lapses. And I think every reporter and pundit covering campus sexual assaults should check carefully how those rates compare with similar crimes among young women not in college. Among that overly large US prison population?
            On the torture issue — also big news in December of 2014 — we need popularizations of historical research. "Torture is not who we are," said President Obama; an article in The Atlantic suggests, nah, that's us. The historical record indicates that we Americans are currently doing better than many peoples over the centuries, but that's a distressingly low bar. What's the record of torture in US periods of fear — hanging witches and terrorizing Blacks … for instance — and what is our record during periods of imperial expansion, as in the Philippines? How often were "enhanced interrogation techniques" used in the US historically? What are the best guesses at the rate today?
            (In 1692, Giles Corey was "pressed with heavy stones" to force him to enter a plea in the Salem Witch Trials. He didn't plead but died after a couple of days, so he couldn't be found guilty, so his property wasn't confiscated and could go to his heirs. Corey may be unique in US history, but milder torture such as waterboarding and "the third degree" are not.)
            Personal stories are extraordinarily useful to put human faces on statistics; but for policy we need the numbers. Especially on controversial issues, US universities and the gov't of the United States need to get out reliable and disinterested stats, and a wide swath of people need to read and understand those numbers.

            "I feel your pain" is a decent enough thought, but it's always more or less a figure of speech and/or a lie if you're talking about pain on a large scale. Compassion is the core, the metaphorical

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