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Posted by on Jan 12, 2013 in Debate | 9 comments

Sam Harris, crimes, and statistics

As an addendum to the recent flurry of posts about Sam Harris and gun control, one lesson relates to the dangers in using crime statistics. Those dangers do affect gun control advocates, but I think they have a much greater effect on the arguments of opponents of gun control. That is because the statistical information used by gun control advocates tends to be relatively straightforward – the number of unlawful homicides involving guns in the US is very high compared to other economically advanced countries (though lower by, say, Central American standards). No one seriously disputes this, though different explanations are offered.

If the arguments got into issues of the percentage of murders compared with, say, manslaughters, there might be problems, as there are different crimes, definitions, partial defences, etc., in different jurisdictions. However, unlawful homicides are not the sorts of crimes where overall statistics can be dramatically skewed by such things as over-reporting or under-reporting. In the upshot, the annual number of deaths by unlawful homicide with firearms in the US is very large indeed, and many times larger in per capita terms than those of other economically advanced countries.

Perhaps different murder weapons are favoured in countries where guns are strictly regulated? Perhaps, but the overall unlawful homicide rate is still much higher in the US than in countries that the US might normally want to itself to, and I don’t think anyone seriously disputes this.

In his recent FAQ on the subject of violence and guns, Harris suggests that rape and assault rates are higher in the the UK, Australia, and Sweden than in the US, and even that the much higher reported rape rates in Australia and Sweden suggest we might to well to provide women in those countries with guns for self-defence!

To his credit, Harris has (since?) added a footnote in which he concedes the point that it is difficult to compare figures between countries for rape: “One reader has pointed out that cultural differences in how often rapes get reported, and how they are recorded by different police departments, makes comparing rates of sexual violence between countries problematic. I tend to agree.”

Fair enough – there is no point in berating Harris over an issue where he has made such a concession, and that is not the intention of this post. But it does underline the difficulties of using comparitive statistics with a crime such as rape. There are, notoriously, sociological studies that suggest a very high incidence of rape in the US, together with massive under-reporting of this crime. Even if some of those studies are methodologically flawed and the tendency is to produce exaggerated data, it is widely agreed that rape is an under-reported crime, so much so that differences between jurisdictions in reported rates may have far more to do with police attitudes, public awareness, and the like than with the actual danger of experiencing sexual violence (or even, I hypothesise, than with problems from different definitions).

Unfortunately, something similar applies to assault. Harris correctly observes that assaults can be very serious and harmful crimes, so we should not underplay the importance of assault rates. Fair enough.

But international comparisons are difficult with such a crime. An assault does not leave a body to be accounted for, and it does not even have to leave injuries. Traditionally, if I so much as shake my fist at you, instilling fear that I might attack you, that is a common law assault. Definitions can vary enormously between jurisdictions, as can cultural attitudes to reporting such things as domestic violence and simple fighting, as well as attitudes among police to how they handle these things.

If you doubt that there’s a methodological problem, you can browse the various statistical series provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. While homicide rates using firearms are uniformly very low across Europe and consistent over time, assault rates vary enormously over Europe and over time. The latter might mean that some countries which we’d think of as similar are much more dangerous than others, but this really doesn’t pass the smell test.

Perhaps when we look at what appear to be anomalies they sometimes represent real cultural differences. For example, maybe there really is a culture in Scotland that generates a huge number of assaults per year. I’d need to know a lot more to draw a conclusion one way or the other.

But how many anomalies does it take? Do we really think that there are nearly twenty times as many assaults (per capita) in Sweden as in Norway – assuming a common definition of “assault”? Or that the number (per capita) changed to the extent of becoming only one sixth what it had been in Malta between 2006 and 2007? Or that it fell, recently and suddenly, to one twentieth what it previously was in Switzerland? Or even that there are such dramatic cultural differences between Belgium and France as to make the per capita rate of assault in Belgium more than twice as high as in France? Or what about the fact that France’s rate is also only about half of Germany’s, or that Germany’s is currently almost fifteen times as high as Austria’s?

Or to use Australia again, our rate has (supposedly) fallen to much less than half what it was only a decade ago.

When you go through these figures, you have to conclude that international statistical comparisons are, without much deeper criminological research, almost meaningless for a crime like assault.

The lesson is that we need to do more triangulating and digging before we place evidentiary weight on international crime statistics. As long as definitions have not changed within a jurisdiction, they might tell us something about trends over time in that jurisdiction, and they can certainly be more reliable with some crimes than others – more reliable with crimes that are likely to be reported and taken seriously than with crimes that may be under-reported or under-recorded (or, depending on your views about policing of minor assaults, even over-recorded).

More generally, evidence from statistical surveys is useful… but it can also be misleading. It always has to be handled with care, and it is best when triangulated with other evidence.

  • I would say such comparisons are meaningless, period. Unless that is, the only difference is how many homicides there are.

  • Ingemar Oseth


    The website includes a considerable amount of information regarding data collection, methodology and analysis. Included are various papers which describe the problems of comparing data from different cultures/countries as well as how these issues might be best handled to obtain results that are statistically valid and reliable.

    For example, there is a flow chart which lays out in some detail a method for smoothing (reconciling) these differences. The only noticeable omission (at least I did not see it) was the lack of discussion regarding the actual statistical tools used to model the data.

    Regression analysis can “triangulate” qualitative data such as cultural differences between data sources.

    This said, I do not think you can so easily dismiss the information contained on the site, although it is always prudent to examine the results of regression analysis.

  • Ingemar Oseth

    On what do you base your conclusion?

  • Drug culture (war), social safety nets, poverty rates, poor education, poor healthcare – especially mental, etc. We’re more of a 2nd world nation slipping to 3rd world status, than a “1st world” nation.

  • Thanny

    I had the same questions about the rape figures (definition, report rate, etc.), and was even more suspicious about the assault figures. They can’t possibly be using the same standards in every country.

    So I don’t know if the position on guns reducing assaults that Harris seems to be taking is valid or not.

    I do still maintain that the US does not have a gun violence problem, but rather a violence problem. The homicide statistics make that abundantly clear to anyone who doesn’t have an agenda in examining them. When you compare non-gun homicides by country, the US is much higher than other well developed nations. Furthermore, there are several other developed nations with high levels of gun ownership (>20% of households) that don’t have the same violence problems. Those would be Canada, Finland, New Zealand, Switzerland, France, and Norway.

    The NRA, of course, points to cases like Switzerland, where 7 million people privately own hundreds of thousands of automatic assault weapons, and says that guns make people safer. That isn’t true, either. There are glaring failures to distinguish correlation and causation at both extremes on this issues.

    The correlation which I think merits consideration as causation is the inverse one between social security and violence in a society. The data shows that when people don’t have to worry about starving when they lose their job, or going bankrupt when they get seriously ill, they tend not to kill each other so much. And they also believe fewer fairy tales.

  • Vic

    I think that’s a bit exagerated. The US is big. Poverty and other factors vary wildly from region to region.

    There are middle-sized towns with one homicide in ten years.

    And there are towns where the police needs a dozen body bags every night.

    I think it’s more that that crime was confined to certain areas, as a result of poor people moving to certain areas. These hotspots provide much of the crime and bad living conditions which increase the average rates of the US. And I’m quite confident it’s the same for Europe.

    In these areas crime might even increase, against the trend that the 1st world as a whole gets safer every year.

  • Mike W

    I had the same suspicions regarding assault/rape statistics. I also ask how many of these are transmuted into gun death statistics in the US.

    As a local (Australian) indicator as to how confusing stats can be – NSW lists dog attacks as everything from “dog chases another animal” to “dog mauls child”, and doesn’t separately publish the major category differences in its erratically published annual statistics. I’ve written to the minister in charge on two occasions but not had a response.

  • Phil Torres

    Curious about why no one seems to be mentioning to Harris that
    having a gun in the house actually increases the chances of dying in a homicide.
    This seems to significantly vitiate his point.

  • Vic

    While this is certainly interesting, I would bet there is a correlation between gun ownership and living in a hazardous, high-crime area.